Weekend review: Bradley at Wichita State

Scores: WSU 4, Bradley 3 (10); WSU 7, Bradley 0; WSU 8, Bradley 4

Key stats: WSU has won 19 in a row over the Braves and 33 straight at Eck Stadium. This was a series the Shockers had to sweep to get serious about finishing at or near the top of the MVC. Shocker pitchers held  Bradley to six earned runs, limiting it to five extra-base hits and six walks. Bradley pitchers walked 13, hit five and threw four wild pitches. WSU 1B Casey Gillaspie hit .600 to continue to smash Bradley pitching during his career. While leadoff hitter Daniel Kihle continued to slump (2 of 13), the bottom of WSU’s order sparked the offense. No. 8 hitter Zair Koeiman went 4 for 9 with a walk. No. 9 hitter Tanner Dearman hit .222, but drove in four runs, dropped in two sac bunts, a sac fly and stole two bases. His RBI single won the series opener.

Records: WSU 25-23, 9-6 MVC; BU 21-23, 4-14

  • Wichita State handed pitcher Aaron LaBrie a cap when he arrived in 2010 and he wore that same cap on Sunday. It’s faded, the black looks more like gray, and stained. LaBrie tried a new hat for WSU’s road trip to Kansas City and New Orleans in late April and it just didn’t seem the same. “Everyone was telling me they don’t even recognize me without this old hat on,” he said. “I figure I’ve had it for four years, I might as well keep it and not switch over to a new one with a month left in the season.” The faded lid fits LaBrie and his career at WSU. He toils as an under-appreciated middle reliever, usually reliable and always available. He started as a situational lefty and worked hard to become more than that. In 2013, he provided a major piece of the bullpen, throwing 54 innings and compiling a 0.83 ERA and four saves. He is again a key piece this season, with a 2.45 ERA in 40.3 innings. He bounced back Sunday after a rough stretch in which his control uncharacteristically came and went. LaBrie restored order to a back-and-forth game with three shutout innings by holding Bradley to one hit. “I was just working ahead,” he said. “Before I was falling behind everyone and then trying to be too fine. I just came right at them and jumped ahead.”
  • LaBrie is throwing a slider more often and it is helping him raise his strikeouts in recent games. He struck out a career-high five against Oklahoma State on Tuesday in two innings and added two more Sunday. “In the past, it’s kind of just been a get-me-over slider that I would never really show for a strikeout,” he said. “It’s starting to come along and be one of my better pitches.” WSU’s bullpen isn’t as deep as it was last season and LaBrie is critical to its hopes in the MVC Tournament. He will be needed, probably more than once, if the Shockers are to win four or five games. He will be there, wearing his old hat and filling his familiar role. “It fits perfect, doesn’t fall off my head when I pitch,” he said.
  • LaBrie’s 85 career appearances rank ninth in WSU history, putting him in the company of some of WSU’s top relievers – 1. Noah Booth (115), 2. Jaime Bluma (114), 3. Marc Bluma (103) etc. LaBrie’s career ERA is 2.31, which would rank fourth at WSU. He needs 8 1/3 more innings to qualify for that list.
  • What did the Shockers accomplish? Sweeping Bradley has become routine, so it might not tell us anything about WSU’s ability to win series against third-place Dallas Baptist and at second-place Illinois State the next two weekends. The MVC appears so balanced this season, avoiding Evansville’s Kyle Freeland in the first day of the tournament might be the only meaningful seeding outcome. The Shockers probably need to go 5-1 to have any hope of finishing first and that consistency is unlikely. But they know they can count on good starting pitching. If this weekend’s solid offensive execution and smart base-running is a trend, WSU can finish strong.
  • Indiana State, tied with WSU and Dallas Baptist for third, appears to possess the most favorable schedule. The Sycamores host sixth-place Missouri State and play at last-place Bradley to finish the MVC schedule. Illinois State plays at first-place Evansville this weekend before playing host to WSU. Evansville finishes at Missouri State, where the Bears are 6-8 and 3-6 against MVC competition (after Dallas Baptist swept in a non-conference series in March).
  • Remaining schedules – WSU: DBU, at Illinois State; UE: Illinois State, at MSU; DBU: at WSU, SIU; Indiana State: MSU, at BU; BU: Indiana State; SIU: at DBU; MSU: at Indiana State, UE; Illinois State: at UE, WSU.
  • Kihle is seeing a ton of breaking pitches. After a red-hot start in his return to the lineup, he is in a strikeout-ridden slump. On April 25, he was hitting .393 and had given WSU’s offense a huge boost in 10 games since returning from wrist surgery. After going 2 for 13 against Bradley, with six strikeouts, he is down to .319 (still second on the team). For the season, Kihle has 32 strikeouts and four walks. In nine plate appearances on Saturday and Sunday, only once did he work his way into more than a one-ball count. He had great success swinging early in the count, but now pitchers appear to be using that aggressiveness against him to neutralize his power and speed. While he’s played in only 29 games, his 10 doubles rank fourth on the team and his three home runs are third.

Next up: vs. Kansas State, 7 p.m. Tuesday (ESPNU)