Wichita State baseball routs top-seeded ECU to advance to AAC tournament semis

It wasn’t that long ago when the season seemed to be spiraling out of control for the Wichita State baseball team.

After an encouraging start, the Shockers hit a wall in April and the debut season for manager Brian Green appeared to be headed for a forgettable finish. Then May came and the entire attitude in the dugout shifted, as the wins began to rack up.

Now the Shockers are in the midst of an improbable postseason run that has them in the driver’s seat to play for the American Athletic Conference tournament championship following a 14-4 rout over top-seeded East Carolina, the No. 9-ranked team in the country, in a winner’s bracket game on Thursday afternoon in Clearwater, Fla.

“The dugout is bonkers right now,” Green said. “If you watch us play and you get on the other side and see us in the dugout, it’s insane. It’s all about energy and belief and we have it. This is my third Year 1 and I’ve never been around a group of guys committed to culture and team-first the way this one is. It’s been a really fun group to coach and a really fun May.”

WSU improved to 9-1 in its last 10 games in May and won its first two games in Clearwater for the first time in program history. The Shockers (31-27) earned another day of rest and advanced to Saturday’s 8 a.m. Central semifinal game, where they will play the winner between ECU and Rice. WSU needs just one win Saturday to advance, while its opponent would need to win twice.

Not a bad position to be for a team that lost 17 of 21 games at one point.

“You go through that spiral that we had and most teams would fizzle and fade away in May,” Green said.

“We were tired on the mound and getting beat up pretty good in midweeks and limping into the weekends, but then we get to May and the guys made a conscious commitment to being relentlessly optimistic about everything. We’ve got some serious momentum going on right now in that dugout.”

No one has more momentum than Josh Livingston, who had struggled at the plate for essentially the entire season before the calendar flipped over to May. The junior proved to be the hero on Thursday, crushing a pair of home runs — a three-run homer in the sixth, then a grand slam in the seventh — to drive in half of WSU’s runs.

His batting average was below .200 entering May, but Livingston is currently riding a six-game hitting streak where he is hitting .429 (9 for 21) with five home runs and 19 RBIs this month.

“When the season started, we anticipated he was going to be a middle-of-the-order guy with his bat,” Green said. “He started the season in the lineup and then you look up and he was really struggling left-on-left. He went through a tough stretch in April where he didn’t play a lot, but now we give him a start and we can’t get him out of the lineup.”

ECU entered this week as the only team in the tournament with its postseason fate secured, the only question being if it would nab a top-eight national seed. The Pirates certainly looked the part through five innings on Tuesday, as home runs by Ryan McCrystal and Dixon Williams established a 3-1 lead.

But the Shockers flipped the game’s momentum with a seven-run explosion in the top of the sixth inning.

The rally didn’t take off until a throwing error by ECU on a ground ball hit by Camden Johnson botched what could have been an inning-ending double play. Instead, it loaded the bases for WSU and No. 9 hitter Kam Durnin promptly made ECU pay with an RBI hit.

It was another freshman, lead-off hitter Lane Haworth, who opened up the floodgates for the Shockers, as he turned on a first-pitch fastball to send a bases-clearing double into the left-center gap and stake WSU to a 5-3 lead. After Jordan Rogers was plunked by a pitch, Livingston sent WSU’s dugout into hysterics with a three-run home run to extend the lead to 8-3.

“One through nine, we are just clicking right now,” Green said. “We’re a confident group up at the plate and right now we’re just riding that thing.”

While WSU was able to ride freshman Tommy LaPour into the seventh inning, ECU was in scramble mode with a rash of pitching injuries that included ace Trey Yesavage. The Pirates turned to closer Wyatt Lunsford-Shenkman, who had a superb 1.20 ERA but was chased from his first start of the season in the first inning after WSU’s Jaden Gustafson (three hits) delivered an RBI single to put WSU in front early.

ECU used eight different pitchers in Thursday’s game and must play again Friday in order to advance to Saturday, where the Pirates would need to beat the Shockers twice. Meanwhile, WSU is in excellent shape pitching-wise after both of its starters, Caden Favors and LaPour, lasted into the seventh inning to limit the workload for the bullpen.