For the second time in three days, Wichita State knocked off top-seeded East Carolina, eliminating the No. 7-ranked Pirates from the American Athletic Conference baseball tournament on Friday in Clearwater, Florida.
Senior Mason O’Brien smacked two home runs and tied the AAC Tournament record with six RBIs as the Shockers bludgeoned ECU 12-5, reaching the AAC semifinals for the first time. WSU’s offense finished with 15 hits and tagged ECU starter Jake Kuchmaner, who entered with a 6-1 record and 2.12 earned-run average, with seven earned runs on eight hits in just two innings. “
This week has been a stunning turnaround for the Shockers, who had to win their last regular season game to qualify for the conference tournament as the No. 8 seed. To be able to beat a team with NCAA championship aspirations twice in three days is without question the season’s crowning achievement.
“I think it all started when we beat (South Florida) in the do-or-die game,” O’Brien said. “I think that’s when it all hit us that we might only have 27 outs left together and we’ve been able to go to another gear since. We know any game could be our last. We’ve known all year we’ve had the talent and now we’re starting to get hot and get rolling.”
WSU (28-30) will need to beat Connecticut (35-22) twice on Saturday to make it to the winner-take-all championship game on Sunday. WSU was tied with UConn entering the ninth inning but lost 9-7 to the Huskies on Thursday. Saturday’s first game will start at 9 a.m. Central.
Sweeping a doubleheader seems like a tall task, but so did beating ECU with one of its top pitchers on the mound. Plus, the Shockers have done it before, taking two from a quality Creighton team on the same day earlier this season. Freshman Connery Peters will start Game 1 for WSU.
“It’s all about graduating to the next challenge and overcoming it,” WSU coach Todd Butler said. “The guys are coming to play and there’s a great atmosphere with the team and the guys are really going out there and enjoying themselves and playing well and competing. It’s been a lot of fun to watch.”
On Friday, WSU led by double digits after three innings.
The first blow came in the second inning when Jacob Katzfey, David VanVooren and Jordan Boyer all delivered two-out singles to score a run. After Luke Ritter was hit by a pitch to load the bases, O’Brien clobbered his first home run over the right-field fence on the first pitch for a 5-0 lead.
“I was actually sitting on the breaking ball, but he threw a fastball inside and I just reacted to it,” O’Brien said. “Kuchmaner is a great pitcher, but I just wanted to do something for my team. I shortened up my swing and was quick to the ball and just tried to put the ball in play and help my team.”
ECU got a run back in the top half of the third inning, but WSU’s momentum carried into the bottom half. The Shockers scored two on ECU mistakes, then two more on RBI hits from VanVooren (a double down the left-field line) and Ritter before O’Brien hit another home run, once again over the right-field wall, giving WSU an 11-1 lead and O’Brien a “surreal” feeling.
“Mason O’Brien is playing his best baseball at the most important time of the season,” Butler said. “He’s hitting home runs, giving us good at-bats every time, it doesn’t matter if it’s a left-hander or right-hander. He’s doing a tremendous job and he was huge for us today.”
That gave starter Liam Eddy more than enough cushion, as the sophomore delivered one of the best outings of the season on the mound. Eddy allowed three earned runs and pitched into the seventh inning, striking out seven with no walks in 6 1/3 innings to seal the victory for WSU.
“He was at like 50 pitches after the second inning, so I was a little worried about his pitch count but Liam really settled in and he was in total control,” Butler said.
The Shockers had five lead-off hits and finished 7 for 17 with runners in scoring position. O’Brien led the way with a 3-for-5 performance with two runs scored, six RBIs, a double and two home runs, while Jordan Boyer, Ritter, Paxton Wallace, Jack Sigrist, Katzfey and VanVooren all had two hits apiece.
While ECU dominated the rest of the American, winning 21 of 24 games against the other seven teams in the conference, the Shockers had the Pirates’ number, winning three of five games in the last two weeks. It was the first time since 2015 that WSU has won two games in a conference tournament.
“We knew this was going to be one of the best conference tournaments in the country and that’s what you hope and pray to play against,” O’Brien said. “Our backs are against the wall, but we’ve known all year the talent is there to be doing what we’re doing now. Things didn’t go our way earlier this season, but now we’re pitching well and hitting well and we’re playing together as one.”