Wichita State played two home games in April and much changed while the Shockers traveled to five states for 17 games. During those road trips, they lost six of seven, won 10 straight — two at home — and swept their way into the Missouri Valley Conference lead.
Now the Shockers (31-18, 16-5 MVC) are home for the rest of the regular season and they can win the MVC title and strengthen their NCAA regional at-large resume at Wilkins Stadium. WSU plays Missouri State (19-27, 8-12) in a single game at 6 p.m. Tuesday and Southern Illinois (30-17, 13-9) in a three-game series that begins with a doubleheader on Saturday.
“The best thing about it is, everyone in our lineup is doing it,” left fielder Brittany Fortner said. “That was big for our confidence, being back at the top, where we know we belong. It’s about being confident, not cocky.”
The past 10 games should give WSU every reason for confidence.
They swept Drake to take first place from the Bulldogs and lead them by 2 1/2 games with four to play. WSU hit .364 with 17 home runs and a .619 slugging percentage in those 10 games. Its pitchers compiled a 3.40 ERA with Katie Malone throwing three complete games with a 2.52 ERA in seven appearances. Third baseman Liz Broyles hit .528 and her three-run home run beat Drake in the final game of the series. First baseman Cacy Williams hit .467 and homered four times. Right fielder Paige Luellen hit five home runs and walked 11 times.
“We’re playing with some confidence, which I think we lacked during that (previous stretch),” coach Kristi Bredbenner said. “The big thing is that Katie Malone is pitching better, and that’s been a huge factor. Katie’s pitching better and not putting as much stress on Jenni (Brooks) to throw as much.”
Brooks and Malone both threw complete games in 9-1 and 9-0 wins over Drake before combining in the series finale, a 7-4 win. Malone added another complete in Friday’s 3-2 win at Indiana State and finished with four innings in relief in Saturday’s 7-2 win.
“She’s focused a little more on keeping the ball down,” Bredbenner said. “When she really struggled, she was trying to do too much with it. She was trying to throw a curve, and a backdoor curve, and a riseball and screwball and a drop and a change and none of them were really very good. We were trying to practice too much, instead of really just honing in on throwing two or three pitches and focus on where we’re going to spot them.”
The Shockers won the MVC title in 2014 and regard last season’s fourth-place finish as a disappointment. Players such as Fortner, Broyles, Williams, Luellen, Macklin Hitz and others lived through both seasons and see this strong finish as the result of those experiences.
“We’ve had the good and we’ve had the bad,” Broyles said. “The good, for us, we love that feeling. We love the pressure and having a good time and playing well with each other. We’ve definitely started to do that.”
In 2014, WSU won eight straight games in late April and finished the regular season on a 13-3 run and won the Valley by three games.
“That experience will help us a lot, not to freak out and get nervous at the end,” Fortner said. “Everyone is pretty even-keeled and that’s helped us a lot.”
WSU controls the MVC race and a strong finish will help its borderline NCAA at-large resume. It ranks No. 50 in the NCAA’s power ranking (RPI), a range that Bredbenner said can produce at-large teams. The Shockers own wins over No 32 Nebraska, No. 42 Tulsa, No. 44 Kansas and No. 45 South Alabama. Ten of its losses are to teams ranked in the top 40.
The Shockers haven’t lost to team ranked lower than 150 and keeping that mark intact will be important this week against No. 186 Missouri State.
“We’re in the mix,” Bredbenner said. “This week is a huge week for us. We can’t afford a loss to Missouri State. And we can’t afford to lose two out of three to SIU. If something like that happens, we’re going to take a hit.”