It hasn't been the season Wichita State's baseball team expected, but at least the Shockers still have some fight.
They threatened in the late innings Saturday afternoon to overcome a Creighton lead, putting the tying runs at second and third base with just one out, before Johnny Coy and Tyler Coughenour fanned to close out a 7-5 Bluejays win.
And in the fifth inning, the spunk of WSU coach Gene Stephenson was on display. After a soft base hit to center field by Creighton right fielder Trever Adams put two runners aboard, Stephenson emerged from the dugout and asked home-plate umpire John Routh to check the bat Adams had just used.
Stephenson said after the game that he had heard a strange sound from Adams' bat, and from those used by some other Creighton hitters during Saturday's game. Contact, he said, produced the kind of "ping" sound that was supposed to disappear from college baseball when new rules governing bats were introduced this season in an effort to level off scoring and reduce the risk of injuries from batted balls.
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Routh checked Adams' bat and did nothing. But the next four Bluejays hitters did: three-run homer, walk, double, double. All of that heavy hitting — with apparently perfectly legal bats — resulted in a five-run inning that chased Shocker starting pitcher Brian Flynn and was instrumental in Creighton evening the three-game series at a game apiece heading into today's rubber match.
I wondered at the time whether Stephenson had awakened a sleeping offensive giant by asking to have Adams' bat looked at. Creighton, after all, was down 3-2 at the time and was blanked by Shocker lefty Charlie Lowell in the series opener Friday.
But none of the Bluejays was offended by Stephenson's curiosity. In fact, they expected it.
"We've got these Louisville Slugger BBCOR (Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution) bats and they do break easily,'' Creighton coach Ed Servais said. "We're on about our third shipment. They also sound funny when you hit the ball toward the end of the bat so I don't blame (Stephenson) for checking.''
Servais said coaches from other teams have done the same thing in games against Creighton.
So why does he continue to allow his players to use the fishy-sounding bats?
No doubt it's because a lot of his players swear by them.
Adams, who came into Saturday's game batting .416 with 28 extra-base hits, isn't about to stop using the Louisville Slugger TPX brand, even though he's broken more than a few.
"These bats are normally lasting about a week,'' Adams said. "They're not really reliable at all because they crack so easily. But for that week they work — we really like the weight distribution on these bats better than some others we've tried.''
Wichita State uses bats made by DeMarini and they make the "click" sound that has replaced the "ping" in most college ballparks across the country.
"It just sounded different, that's all,'' Stephenson said of his fifth-inning objection. "Yeah, when (Adams) hit the ball it sounded different. I wasn't satisfied that the bat was checked out but it's not my job. I don't have any choice; I can't go over there and pick out the bat myself. The umpire said it was fine.''
Creighton could have been swinging tree branches and not have done much Friday against Lowell, who was masterful in pitching a five-hit shutout while not issuing a walk and striking out eight.
Flynn has the potential to be just as dominant, but he never appeared to be in command of his pitches Saturday and, ultimately, Creighton made him pay. It continued a strange trend for the Shockers, who have not had as much as a three-game winning streak since winning the first seven games of the season Feb. 18-27.
Since that hot start, which included three wins apiece against Niagara and North Dakota and a victory over Oral Roberts, the Shockers are 22-22.
Spinning their wheels. Stuck in the mud. In need of some kind of jolt.
But weeks pass quietly and WSU has become just another team in just another conference.
A victory would have moved the Shockers into a tie with Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference. But the loss guarantees that the Bluejays will leave town today in first place.
At least Saturday's game was interesting. And tense.
"That felt like a regional kind of game with all the intensity,'' Servais said. "It's good. Both teams need that as we prepare for the Valley tournament in a few weeks. And we've always had some interesting games with Wichita State in the past, haven't we?''
No doubt, WSU-Creighton always has a special feel. Saturday, it even had a special sound. One that Stephenson probably heard as he fell asleep.