MVC Tournament review

Scores: Illinois State 6, WSU 0; WSU 8, Evansville 6; WSU 2, Southern Illinois 1 (12); Illinois State 6, WSU 1

Key stats: Illinois State pitchers Dan Savas, Brock Stewart and Jeremy Rhoades held WSU to one run and eight hits in 18 innings, striking out 23. The week followed the pattern of most weekend series – the Shockers had one big offensive game in them, played one close game and struggled to score. 3B Chase Simpson provided WSU’s biggest offensive game in the win over Evansville, going 4 for 5 and driving in three runs. Dayne Parker went 3 for 5 and beat the Aces with a two-run home run in the ninth, eliminating the top seed. 1B Casey Gillaspie struggled in the rare opportunities teams pitched to him, a death knell for the struggling offense. He went 2 for 14 and didn’t drive in a run, walking six times. Reliever Ray Ashford didn’t allow a hit or a run in 3 2/3 innings. Foster Vielock ended his WSU career with one of his best outings, shutting out SIU for 4 1/3 innings, the longest of his career.

Record: WSU 31-28

  • I consider next season the “real” first season for coach Todd Butler. This roster was dominated by players recruited by former coach Gene Stephenson. Eight seniors will depart, as will several junior draft picks and others. The roster will look dramatically different in 2015 and there will not be many players with heavy NCAA Division I experience. WSU has at least 19 players signed (although the June draft may alter plans) and more could be on the way (again, depending on the draft). A high school outfielder is planning a visit next week. Don’t forget, outfielder Mikel Mucha is expected to return from a broken leg and outfielder Michael Burns redshirted as a freshman. Both figure into plans next season.
  • Here are some recruiting stories to refresh your memory on some of the newcomers. Lots of juco pitchers. Rynard and Williams are two hard-throwing additions. A two-way player from Arizona and a former Razorback. The fall class went heavy on pitching.
  • WSU was picked first in the preseason MVC poll. What happened? Injuries and suspensions kept the team from developing a consistent lineup. Several of the hitters who performed well in 2013 either dropped off or failed to improve in 2014, contributing to an offense that struggled. A tougher schedule and tougher MVC helped knock down those preseason expectations. WSU’s strength of schedule jumped from No. 125 in 2013 to No. 45 this season. The MVC jumped from No. 15 in the RPI to No. 6. With eight seniors and 12 juniors, WSU should have been able to handle some of those challenges. Together, they kept the Shockers from gaining traction despite outstanding starting pitching and a memorable offensive season from Gillaspie.
  • While the 2014 Shockers didn’t win big, they did produce several landmark performances. Gillaspie appears certain to become WSU’s fifth first-round position player. Starter A.J. Ladwig compiled a 1.54 ERA, sixth-lowest for a single-season at WSU and second among starters. Reliever Aaron LaBrie finished his career as one of WSU’s most reliable and durable relievers. Starter Cale Elam will go down in the history books excelling as a closer and a starter in ways no other Shocker did.
  • Dallas Baptist proved an excellent addition to the MVC, as expected. With Creighton’s departure, the Patriots became more than a luxury. In a perfect world, the MVC would add another baseball team. One bad weekend or bad weather can wreck things too easily. Add in the home/road imbalance in a seven-weekend schedule and it’s not ideal. Twenty-one games is too few to determine a champion.
  • I was skeptical of the MVC’s move to smaller stadiums at Illinois State and Indiana State the past two seasons. Both places ran the tournament smoothly, not surprisingly, but that doesn’t change my point that the MVC isn’t maximizing its look for baseball by moving from TD Ameritrade Park in 2011 to Terre Haute in 2014. The smaller facilities in the MVC are more-than-adequate, but there are clearly two parks in the conference (WSU and Missouri State) that are a cut above. Isn’t that what a conference should desire for its championship?
  • Indiana State deserves a lot of credit for improving Warn Field and putting outstanding effort into the tournament. The school provided many extra touches that showed a real enthusiasm for hosting. Indiana State didn’t have to play personalized walk-up songs for players or bring in a video-board or recruit an army of volunteers to help fans and athletes. It did, and it’s a shame the Sycamores went out quickly to rob the tournament of much of its atmosphere.
  • The upside to moving the tournament around is that other schools will improve their facilities. Ultimately, what benefits other schools helps WSU. Every school outside of Evansville has put significant resources into its campus ballpark in recent seasons and that should make the MVC stronger. Stephenson believed schools other than WSU and MSU would hold the tournament once. After losing money, they would decline in the future. It will return to Eck Stadium in 2015 and we’ll see how it goes from there.