Elite pitching has Wichita State baseball atop the conference after sweep of Rice

Saturday was always going to tell Wichita State baseball coach Brian Green a lot about his team.

The Shockers are an inexperienced team, at least in Division-I time, and their maturity would be tested by how they responded with a chance to sweep Rice at Eck Stadium.

“It was an opportunity for an inexperienced team to let their guard down,” Green said. “And then you look up and you’re in a dogfight in the seventh inning.”

But there was no letdown on Saturday, as Wichita State pummeled Rice for a 15-3, run-rule victory in seven innings to complete a series sweep and keep the Shockers (18-9, 5-1 AAC) atop the American Athletic Conference standings.

WSU has played UAB and Rice, two of the conference’s bottom-tier teams according to RPI, but there is still something to be said for a new team under a first-year coach to handle its business — outscoring league opponents 53-19 so far.

“Right now I’m impressed with our ability to play the game long,” Green said. “When I say that, I mean we’re just playing baseball. We’re not playing the scoreboard. We’re pitching really well, we don’t have big innings on defense, we don’t give away a lot of free bases, and offensively, we’re just consistent. I’m really proud of our guys for their consistency of competitiveness.”

Green pointed out: Through 27 games WSU has either won or had a chance to win in every game but the 19-8 loss to Auburn.

That’s a credit to the team’s pitching, which ranks No. 14 nationally with an ERA of 3.77. That improved after two more quality starts from ace Caden Favors (5-1, 2.79 ERA) and freshman Tommy LaPour (six innings, two earned runs, eight strikeouts on Saturday).

WSU’s only moments of adversity came in Thursday’s opener, as the teams were tied 5-5 entering the final three innings. Jordan Rogers provided the game-winning hit, a two-RBI single, in the 7-5 victory. The Shockers followed with a 10-3 win on Friday, then the run-rule victory on Saturday.

Maize graduate Jaden Gustafson was 4-for-4 at the plate with three RBIs and three runs scored in Saturday’s finale. Dayvin Johnson collected five hits over the series, including his fourth homer of the season, and Derek Williams had a team-high six RBIs with his seventh home run of the year. Catcher Mauricio Millan added five hits as well.

Green was proud of his team’s performance after WSU was a bit sluggish in a series-finale game against Gonzaga, a 4-3 win two weeks ago. On Saturday, WSU scored 15 unanswered runs from the bottom of the first inning to the sixth inning.

“Our concentration at the plate was really good from the start,” Green said. “From a players’ perspective, sometimes you feel comfortable and relaxed when your pitching is good. I was really impressed with our guys today. We never took our foot off the pedal. It didn’t matter what our opposition was doing.”

While WSU has taken care of business on the weekends, it is 0-3 this season against Big 12 teams during the week — with all three coming in tight games.

With two more chances coming up this next week at Eck Stadium, where WSU will play host to Oklahoma at 6 p.m. Tuesday and Kansas at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Green knows the Shockers (No. 73 RPI) need to start capitalizing on its midweek opportunities to potentially push for postseason play.

“The midweek games have all just been heartbreakers,” Green said. “We’ve just been a little bit short. We’ve got to stop looking at the name on the front of the jersey and start getting into the approach. We’ve run into some really good arms and they have to understand that midweek games are a different kind of baseball.”