Weekend review: Wichita State at Illinois State

Scores: WSU 2, Illinois State 0; WSU 2, Illinois State 1; WSU 15, Illinois State 5

Key stats: WSU pitching controlled the series, taking advantage of a Redbirds team in a miserable slump. Even without senior Cale Elam starting (he pitched two scoreless innings in relief) WSU compiled a 2.16 ERA, struck out 21 and walked seven. The Redbirds walked 20, 12 in Saturday’s finale. WSU scored both its runs Friday after a leadoff walk, one on a wild pitch. WSU 1B Casey Gillaspie walked seven times, went 4 for 6, scored four runs and homered. SS Dayne Parker drove in two runs and scored three. Garrett Bayliff drove in four runs. Illinois State’s Paul DeJong and Mike Hollenbeck, the No. 3 and No. 4 hitters, combined to go 2 for 20.

Records: WSU 29-26, 13-8 MVC; ISU 30-21, 10-11

  • In 2008, Wichita State won the regular-season title with future big-leaguers Andy Dirks and Conor Gillaspie starring. Despite excellent stats, neither won the Player of the Year award. Northern Iowa shortstop Brandon Douglas did, for the fourth-place Panthers. The Shockers didn’t win Pitcher of the Year, shutting them out of the MVC’s top individual awards for second straight season while winning the title. Gene Stephenson failed to win Coach of the Year for the millionth straight season. Gillaspie called the Valley a joke (arguing for Dirks as Player of the Year and Stephenson for Coach) and the Valley publicly reprimanded him. “It would be nice to get a little more respect,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a question who the best team is and who the best player is.”
  • This year, WSU and the Gillaspie family turns the tables a bit. It finished fourth and Casey Gillaspie (Conor’s brother) will win Player of the Year when voting is announced Monday. “The numbers dictate that he is probably the obvious choice,” Illinois State coach Mark Kingston said. There should be no suspense for either award. Gillaspie’s dominant offensive season separates him from any other position player. Evansville lefty Kyle Freeland will win Pitcher of the Year. Gillaspie will become the first Shocker since Chris O’Brien in 2011 to win the award named for former Shocker Joe Carter.
  • It will be interesting to see how WSU starter A.J. Ladwig is treated on Monday. His ERA is an MVC-leading 1.11 for all games and 1.11 in MVC games, second. Those are All-America numbers, but Ladwig’s 3-6 record may cost him. There are three All-MVC pitchers on the first team and Freeland is a lock. Elam and Illinois State’s Dan Savas are worthy candidates, in addition to Ladwig. The choices get tougher when voters (coaches) look at MVC-only stats. Evansville’s Cole Isom, for example, went 5-2 with a 2.76 ERA for the champion. Elam went 3-1 with a 2.55 ERA.
  • WSU’s lineup on Saturday is one that seemed likely in January. It took the whole season to get there, largely because suspensions and injuries kept it from happening until Saturday. Bayliff, a senior, led off and was followed by most of the experienced hitters – Parker, Gillaspie, Chase Simpson and Tyler Baker. Sophomores Tanner Dearman and Daniel Kihle spent most of the season leading off before slumps forced Butler to look elsewhere. Bayliff hit No. 2 and No. 3 most of the season. On Saturday, Bayliff went 3 for 4, which is enough of a trend for Butler to keep him there in the MVC Tournament. “I really like that position for him,” Butler said. “Bayliff is a patient hitter. You know what you’re going to get from him because of his effort and his toughness.” The move will give the offense a bonus if dropping Kihle lower in the order gets him more fastballs. He’s got extra-base power and speed, but rarely walks.
  • The fourth-seeded Shockers and fifth-seeded Redbirds meet again Tuesday in the tournament. These kind of rematches happen fairly often. Butler reminded the Shockers sweeping Illinois State will mean nothing on Tuesday. No. 1 pitcher Dan Savas threw three innings on Thursday. He won’t be limited on Tuesday. “We took care of business this weekend,” Gillaspie said. “They’re going to come out ready to play in the tournament. They’re going to be a little more fired up.”
  • Can the Shockers win the tournament? They did last season after finishing second and losing their opener. The big difference is the bullpen, which isn’t as deep as last season. The starting pitching is better at the top. This season’s team hits for a lower average, but with more power. Reliever Aaron LaBrie is throwing very well and Foster Vielock is rested after a good outing on Saturday. Ray Ashford and Drew Palmer seem to be the wild cards. WSU will need at least one of them to provide good innings and they’re capable and their MVC stats are better than their overall stats. The Shockers are in good shape if they stay in the winner’s bracket. I see bullpen depth as a problem should they lose.
  • It’s always hard to believe a team can put together a good week unless it’s done it in the regular season. WSU won four straight games to start the season and five in a row in mid-April, three against last-place Southern Illinois. That’s not much to go on and the Shockers will need to summon up consistency missing most of the season this week.  Top seed Evansville has four four-game win streaks. Second-seeded Indiana State won 12 straight early in the season and seven straight before losing Sunday to Bradley. Third-seeded Dallas Baptist enters the tournament winners of five in a row and also boast streaks of eight, six and five wins.
  • We spent most of the season bemoaning WSU’s offense and its inability to move runners, make productive outs and hit with runners in scoring position. WSU isn’t much different than most MVC teams. Over 21 Valley games, the Shockers ended up with the second-highest batting average (.269), highest slugging percentage (.406), most home runs (18) and walks (101), the second-highest on-base percentage (.378), and third-most runs (112). By the numbers, WSU owns one of the top two or three offenses in the Valley and all those frustrating games are at least partially a product of good pitching and BBCOR bats.
  • Missouri State is the last road team to win back-to-back tournaments, in 1996 and 1997 at Eck Stadium.
  • The regular-season was a disappointment for a team picked first and a roster loaded with experience. Injuries and suspensions played a role. Too many players took a step back from 2013 and too few improved. However, it’s worth pointing out that WSU played a schedule much tougher than 2013 (No. 53 vs. No. 125) and played in an MVC ranked No. 6 (up from No. 15). The Shockers finished two games out of first and one out of second.

Up next: vs. Illinois State, 8 a.m. Tuesday (MVC Tournament)