Weekend review: Illinois State at Wichita State

WSU junior pitcher Isaac Anderson struck out eight, allowed four runs and five hits in Saturday’s 10-8 loss to Illinois State.
WSU junior pitcher Isaac Anderson struck out eight, allowed four runs and five hits in Saturday’s 10-8 loss to Illinois State. The Wichita Eagle

Scores: ISU 7, WSU 2; ISU 10, WSU 8; ISU 7, WSU 4

Records: ISU 17-15, 4-5 MVC; WSU 13-22, 5-4

▪  Who’s hot — WSU RF Sam Hilliard went 7 for 14, homered, and drove in four runs. 3B Keenan Eaton went 4 for 8 with two doubles. DH/C Gunnar Troutwine homered twice on Saturday and drove in five runs, part of his 4-for-11 weekend that produced a .909 slugging percentage even after going 0 for 3 on Sunday. In nightmarish weekend for Shockers pitching, reliever Sam Hilliard kept them in Sunday’s game with 3.2 innings of solid work. He struck out six, walked none, and allowed two runs. Reliever Chase Williams provided some hope he can help the bullpen by striking out three and walking two in 2.3 innings.

▪  Who’s not — WSU pitchers compiled a 7.00 ERA and walked 22 batters and added five wild pitches, a run-scoring balk and hit one batter. WSU’s leadoff hitters went 1 for 11 with five strikeouts and two walks. 2B Chase Rader, back after missing Tuesday’s game at Texas with a sprained ankle, went 1 for 9, as did OF Mikel Mucha.

▪  Our first weekend review of the season will be short. Plenty of you have seen WSU play baseball more than I have this season, because of my basketball duties. I’ve covered three games, including the first two of the weekend, and seen all or parts of three or four more. And I even paid $4.50 for a Dr Pepper.

So I’m not the guy for in-depth revelations as of yet. The numbers tell the story and the Shockers are a struggling team with a minimum of 22 games remaining (unless they reschedule a cancelled game from February). The program’s first losing season since 1970 (6-17) is a strong bet. WSU will need to get to 29 regular-season wins to lock up a winning season entering the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. That would require it to go 16-4.

▪  On March 18, the Shockers were 8-12, about to sweep Southern Illinois on the road, with some hope that sophomore pitcher Sam Tewes could return from shoulder pain within a week or so. They had confidence in Willie Schwanke, who would start that night against Southern Illinois, as the No. 1 starter to replace Tewes. The pitching staff compiled a 4.27 ERA, which wasn’t great, but kept WSU competitive.

Schwanke pitched well that night in a 3-2 win and WSU improved to 11-12 after the weekend. But Schwanke hurt his back throwing his final pitch of the game and won’t throw again this season. Tewes pitched briefly against TCU a week later. He is also out for the season. WSU lost five straight games and now is 13-22 with a 5.31 ERA.

So now you have a pitching staff that walked 22 batters over the weekend. Coach Todd Butler wants to keep “free bases” from walks, errors, etc. to under five a game. WSU isn’t close and it’s easy to see why.

“If you look at our games, with the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, when we go to our middle relief, we give up runs,” Butler said. “Usually, when you walk the leadoff guy, the percentage is above 50 percent that he scores. I think, when we do it, it’s even higher than the college average.”

Fans will quickly grow tired of injuries as an excuse, no matter how legitimate. Patience is the only way out.

▪  When I see pitchers such as Jeb Bargfeldt, Isaac Anderson and Taylor Goshen look sharp for an inning or three, it tells me they’re not mentally there yet. The Shockers, as a group, executed the plan against Illinois State second baseman Paul DeJong, the MVC’s best hitter. On Friday, WSU pitched him carefull. The next two days, they came after him and DeJong went 1 for 10 in the series and didn’t drive in a run.

WSU pitchers locked in against DeJong. Against other Redbirds, not as much. Over the remaining 20-plus games, if that improves it’s a good sign. It means the talent is there and we will have to wait on the brains to catch up.

Anderson pitched very well, Friday night-level, for three innings on Saturday. He faded and left with a 4-3 deficit and it felt as if he pitched acceptably well and gave the Shockers a chance to win. That’s true, but he gives WSU a better chance to win if he avoids a two-out single in the fourth inning that drove in two runs or a leadoff home run by the No. 9 hitter in the fifth. After that home run, Anderson retired the top of the order convincingly.

Anderson, who missed two weeks with tendonitis, didn’t walk a batter and struck out eight. That’s good stuff. But one or bad pitches can ruin a good night and that is where experience helps. Illinois State helped itself by battling in the early innings to raise Anderson’s pitch count and get him out after five innings and 98 pitches.

“He threw strikes,” Butler said. “He threw his slider today … and I think that’s a good pitch for him.”

▪  WSU out-hit the Redbirds 29-26, matched home runs at four and out-slugged them by a narrow margin. The Shockers walked eight times and that’s why they were outscored 24-14. The Shockers aren’t going to win many shootouts, but the lineup looks adequate in the middle with Daniel Kihle, Ryan Tinkham and Hilliard. It would help immensely if Rader could get on track and start to approach his junior college numbers, another item to watch over the final 20 games.

Tanner Dearman’s return from a wrist injury gives WSU another option to lead off.

Butler, after Saturday’s game, said he would look more at freshmen such as Troutwine and Eaton. He knows they will return and it is time for him to consider next season, while still trying to win the MVC Tournament. Players like those two are going to be important as the coaching staff continues to try to turn this thing around in 2016 and 2017.

▪  The good news is that WSU is in third place in the MVC. The bad news is that it faces three more road series, two at nationally ranked Missouri State and Dallas Baptist. This weekend’s series at fourth-place Bradley is crucial if WSU wants to finish third. The rest of WSU’s schedule is loaded with top-100 RPI teams and will be a real test of this team’s resolve.