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Hoosier rival, Wichita State?

Jake Odum made Indiana State games meaningful the past four seasons.

Jake Odum made Indiana State games meaningful the past four seasons.

Indiana State joined the Missouri Valley Conference in 1976. At no point since has it been regarded as Wichita State’s No. 1 rival. Most years, it probably didn’t register in the top five, except for a few baseball seasons during the 1980s.

While it is too early to consider Indiana State an MVC rival on the order of Tulsa or Creighton, the MVC’s All-Sports standings highlight the fact that the Sycamores might be the closest thing to a well-rounded challenger that exists. WSU easily won the All-Sports award and Indiana State finished second, its best finish. While I would consider Missouri State, because of its success in many sports and proximity, the logical choice to heat up the rivalry with WSU, the Bears need to do some work to grow more relevant than the Sycamores.

Surprising, I know. It might be hard for Shocker fans to muster up hard feelings for the Sycamores, based on the tepid history between the schools and location. There might not be any better choices in the near future.

Consider that Indiana State finished second in MVC men’s basketball and tied with WSU for the women’s title. Indiana State’s baseball team earned another NCAA at-large bid (to go with one in 2012) and finished ahead of the Shockers two of the past three seasons. In track and field, Indiana State replaced Northern Iowa as WSU’s biggest challenge in MVC meets.

The rivalry will grow or wither on the strength of men’s basketball, where WSU needs a school to push it in the manner Creighton did for so many years. With its recent success, Indiana State generates some buzz when it’s on the schedule. If coach Greg Lansing can keep his team near the top of the Valley, the rivalry might grow into something.

That Indiana State is mentioned in this discussion is a credit to its administration. It is the smallest (enrollment 11,494) of the MVC’s six public schools and Terre Haute’s population of 59,000 is the second-smallest among MVC cities. Indiana State doesn’t appear to be rolling in dough compared to its MVC rivals.




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.

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)


Baseball America slots Gillaspie No. 18

Baseball America’s draft preview has the Nationals taking Wichita State first baseman Casey Gillaspie No. 18.

Evansville lefty Kyle Freeland is projected to go No. 4 to the Cubs.

Cleanthony Early working for a living

Screenshot of Ryan Michael's video on Cleanthony Early.

Screenshot of Ryan Michael’s video on Cleanthony Early.

Former Shocker Cleanthony Early will take part in the NBA Draft Combine this week in Chicago. Ryan Michael created a video of some of Early’s prep work in Florida, including an interview with trainer Chad Toppert. If Early is showing the ability to “think like a guard” it’s an asset he didn’t show at Wichita State and will serve him well in his move to the NBA.

Early video

Tekele Cotton’s dunk of the year

Hard to argue with this from WSU’s win at Illinois State.

Weekend review: Dallas Baptist at Wichita State

Scores: WSU 8, DBU 5; DBU 8, WSU 2; DBU 6, WSU 4

Key stats: The Patriots hit .304 with 11 extra-base hits. They committed two errors to WSU’s seven. The Shockers hit .240 and struck out 27 times, especially struggling with runners in scoring position on Saturday and Sunday. The Shockers, with those seven errors and two costly misplays that weren’t judged errors, handed the Patriots five unearned runs. DBU “held” Casey Gillaspie to three hits in nine at-bats. They challenged him, especially Saturday, in spots most teams pitch around him and won the matchup. On Sunday, closer Brandon Koch walked him in the eighth with a runner on second, a wise move, although robbing the moment of drama. WSU shortstop Dayne Parker homered twice and catcher Tyler Baker went 4 for 10. While WSU’s starting pitchers deserved far better support from the defense, it’s worth pointing out the Patriots hit well against all three.

Records: DBU 33-18, 11-7; WSU 26-26, 10-8

  • On Friday, the Shockers played one of their best all-around games of the season. It didn’t take long Saturday for things to reverse and the momentum stayed with Dallas Baptist the rest of the weekend. The Patriots came into the weekend hitting .254 and put on a clinic on how to foul off two-strike pitches and put the ball in play. “We think we’ve got a lot of talented hitters, but not a lot of experience,” DBU coach Dan Heefner said. “We don’t really have that star, those guys in the middle of the order that can carry us. We knew for us to be successful we were going to have to have really tough outs, good plate discipline. We don’t have the pure hitters that can roll out there and get four hits a game.” The Patriots did strike out 26 times and walked only eight, but almost everything else worked and the Shockers helped with shoddy defense. Even Friday, starter Cale Elam had to throw 112 pitches to get into the eighth inning and he allowed eight hits and four earned runs. “I knew they were fastball-heavy hitters,” WSU starter Sam Tewes said. “If I missed a spot, I was pretty sure they were going to jump on it.”
  • WSU coach Todd Butler rated Dallas Baptist’s pitching staff on a level with Cal State Fullerton’s. “They have power arms,” Butler said. “They’ve got like 11 guys that are throwing 90.” The DBU pitchers wobbled several times, but usually came up with the big strikeout to stave off disaster. The weekend reminded me of the Tulane series, where a bullpen with several power arms limited the Shockers. “It’s a challenge,” WSU left fielder Micah Green said. “As hitters we like those challenge, but they’re pretty tough to take down when they’re consistently low 90s, good breaking balls.”
  • The Shockers play three games against Illinois State this week (starting Thursday) and then stand a good chance of facing the Redbirds again May 20 in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 game to start the MVC Tournament. WSU needs to win at least one game to make sure it doesn’t fall to sixth place, although that’s unlikely with first-place Evansville playing at sixth-place Missouri State (and WSU holding the tiebreaker over the Bears). With third-place Dallas Baptist playing last-place Southern Illinois and second-place Indiana State playing last-place Bradley, it appears likely that WSU and Illinois State are locked in place.
  • Next up: WSU at Illinois State, 6 p.m. Thursday (Cox 22)

Last chance to see Casey Gillaspie

WSU first baseman Casey Gillaspie is hitting .401 with 13 home runs.

WSU first baseman Casey Gillaspie is hitting .401 with 13 home runs.

The 1981 me was a sophomore at Kapaun Mount Carmel and not interested in Wichita State baseball, at all.  Obviously, I lacked guidance and good role models because nobody pulled me aside to say “Hey, Joe Carter is a great baseball player and you might want to see him play, if for no other reason than to say you did.”

Nobody did that for me - Steve Boleski, I’m looking at you. I’m here to help you out in 2014.

Interest is dipping in Wichita State baseball because the Shockers are average and have been for several years. While weather is a factor, the excitement (and fans) that used to fill Eck Stadium for a game against Oklahoma State or Kansas is slipping away.

So some of you may have missed Casey Gillaspie’s talents. The WSU first baseman, named Friday as one of 30 players on the Golden Spikes Award watch list, is one of the nation’s best hitters. I can’t guarantee he will play in the big leagues, but people smarter than I are confident. He appears to be a solid bet as a first-round draft pick, a rarity for Shocker position players.

Here they are: Joseph Krsnich (1972, Yankees), Joe Carter (1981, Cubs), Russ Morman (1983, White Sox), Conor Gillaspie (2008 Giants).

WSU plays its final home series this weekend. Casey Gillaspie enters Friday’s game against Dallas Baptist ranking in the top 20 nationally in nine offensive categories, including:

  • Batting average, .401 (13th)
  • Home runs, 13 (7th)
  • On-base percentage, .511 (4th)
  • Slugging percentage, .689 (5th)
  • Walks, 41 (4th)

He is the first Shocker to hit more than 11 homers since 2004, a feat made more impressive by the BBCOR bats that tone down the pop since introduced in 2011. Since 2000, only Chris O’Brien (2011), Conor Gillaspie (2008) and Brian Burgamy (2002)  have hit .400 for the Shockers.

Gillaspie is one of the greatest hitters in a program full of them, a status that might get overlooked because of the team’s struggles. Learn from my mistake – it’s worth a trip to Eck Stadium to see a rare talent finish his days in a Shocker uniform.



Baseball: Where are the Shockers?

Former Shocker shortstop Tyler Grimes is playing catcher in the minors.

Former Shocker shortstop Tyler Grimes is playing catcher in the minors.

The annual roundup of all baseball Shockers I can find in the majors and minors:

P Mike Pelfrey - Minnesota Twins

3B Conor Gillaspie – Chicago White Sox

OF Andy Dirks – Detroit Tigers (DL)

P Kris Johnson – AAA Rochester (Twins)

C Koyie Hill – AAA Lehigh Valley (Phillies)

P Brian Flynn – AAA New Orleans (Marlins)

P Tommy Hottovy – AAA Iowa (Cubs)

P Travis Banwart – AAA Columbus (Indians)

SS Dusty Coleman – AA Midland (A’s)

OF Brian Burgamy - AA Binghamton (Mets)

P Jordan Cooper - AA Akron (Indians)

C Chris O’Brien - AA Chattanooga (Dodgers)

C Tyler Grimes – A Fort Myers (Twins)

P Josh Smith – A Bradenton (Pirates)

P Brandon Peterson – A Fort Myers (Twins)

P Albert Minnis – A Quad Cities (Astros)