Missouri State pitcher Jon Harris teased Wichita State hitters with hints of vulnerability.
Hints. Nothing more.
Top-seeded Missouri State sent fourth-seeded Wichita State into the losers bracket with an 8-1 win on Thursday at Eck Stadium in the Missouri Valley Conference baseball tournament. The Shockers, 25-32, must win two games on Friday and one Saturday to reach Saturday night’s championship game.
Harris, who missed one start because of the blister on his pitching hand, held Wichita State scoreless for seven innings on four hits. He struck out six and walked three. Not dominant, by his Valley pitcher of the year standard, but plenty good enough.
“You can tell he bears down when he needs to,” Wichita State first baseman Ryan Tinkham said. “We had chances all night. We couldn’t get the big hit.”
Wichita State’s climb starts against eighth-seeded Southern Illinois at 12:30 p.m. Friday. The winner of that elimination game plays eighth-ranked Missouri State, 43-10, at 7:30 p.m. The Bears need one win to play in Saturday’s championship and further strengthen their already strong NCAA regional resume.
“We need to do more offensively,” Wichita State coach Todd Butler said. “You’re going to have to hit your way back into it.”
Thursday’s game turned quickly from a showcase for Wichita State’s improved pitching to a reminder of season-long struggles. Lefty starter Sam Hilliard battled into the sixth before he tired. He walked seven in 5 1/3 innings, two of which scored. He avoided disaster with five strikeouts and a series of flyballs that kept the Bears under control.
Missouri State led 1-0 entering the sixth and 8-0 when it ended. With one out, Hilliard walked Justin Paulsen and, clearly laboring, gave up an RBI double to Alex Jefferson. Matt Fultz’s first triple of the season signaled the end and Hilliard departed down 3-0.
Taylor Goshen walked two batters and surrendered a single. Ray Ashford gave up a walk and a two-run single to Eric Cheray. Reagan Biechler walked one before getting the final two outs, one a sacrifice fly that gave the Bears an 8-0 lead.
“Sam competed,” Butler said. “He kept us in the ballgame. When we went to our pen, we couldn’t control the runs being scored.”
One run, 3-0 or 8-0 — it didn’t seem to matter much to Harris. While his control of breaking pitches fluttered, his fastball moved sharply and quickly enough to carry the day. He struck out Tinkham on a high fastball in the third with runners at second and third and one out. He spoiled a leadoff walk in the fourth with three groundballs. In the sixth, he froze pinch-hitter Taylor Sanagorski with a changeup to end the inning with a runner at second.
Harris, who last pitched on May 8, struggled to throw his off-speed pitches accurately in the early innings and the Shockers couldn’t quite take advantage. Wichita State got the situation it wanted — Hilliard and Tinkham up with runners on — in the third and fifth innings without success.
“I was fighting everything,” Harris said. “I couldn’t locate the fastball early. I couldn’t locate the curveball or slider early. A few walks hurt me, but I was able to battle through it and put up a few zeros.”
In the third, Mikel Mucha grounded out with runners on second and third to end the inning, an outcome the Shockers hotly disputed.
First baseman Justin Paulsen, ranging away from the base, grabbed the groundball and tossed a lazy floater to Harris covering. That gave Mucha time to make it close and he dove across the base. First-base coach Mike Sirianni hopped in protest when umpire Jim Jackson called him out and Butler sprinted across the diamond to register his complaint.
Harris called it a 50-50 play.
“If we’re safe, we’re going to score two runs,” Butler said. “But you credit Harris. He’s had two weeks off, but he still competed. That’s why he is the pitcher of the year.”
In the fourth, Gunnar Troutwine’s leadoff walk went to waste after two groundouts and Burns’ pop fly. The fifth started with even more promise — Harris plunked Trey Vickers in the shoulder and walked Daniel Kihle. It ended with a double play, stranding Vickers at third.