It might do Wichita State pitcher A.J. Ladwig good to cut loose and throw one to the backstop. Or bounce a pitch at a batter’s feet. Something just a little wild.
Effectively wild, as they say in baseball.
“We’ve talked long and hard about eliminating comfortable (at-bats),” WSU pitching coach Brent Kemnitz said. “Command within the strike zone might mean busting a guy off the plate. You’ve got to be able to move their head or their feet.”
Ladwig, a sophomore from Omaha, throws strikes at an impressive rate, which is a great place to start building a pitcher. In 113 1/3 innings as a Shocker, he walked 19 batters and hit five. The downside of that control is that batters come to the plate knowing they are getting pitches to hit. This season, opponents are hitting .300 against Ladwig with 16 doubles in 50 1/3 innings.
“It’s nice being a strike-thrower, but at the same time hitters are going to be up there swinging,” Ladwig said.
WSU (24-19, 9-3 Missouri Valley Conference) plays at Southern Illinois (19-21, 2-10) with a weekend rotation that regrouped against Evansville with encouraging starts from Ladwig and Drew Palmer. Friday starter Cale Elam continued his strong work leading off. Ladwig and Palmer can answer the questions about Saturday and Sunday if they can continue what they started in their previous outings.
Combine that with Wednesday’s one-hitter, with freshman Garrett Brummett leading a four-pitcher effort, in an 8-0 win over Oral Roberts and WSU starting pitching may be ready to help a busy bullpen.
“I was really pleased with our pitching (Wednesday), and so it gave me a pretty solid feeling about the weekend,” WSU coach Gene Stephenson said.
Ladwig recovered from a rocky first-inning on Saturday to go a career-high eight innings in a 6-3 loss. He gave up four runs, on four hits and his throwing error, in the first inning. That looked like the Ladwig who gave up four runs in 4 2/3 innings against Bradley and five in three innings against Indiana State. Only once this season had he survived past the sixth, way back on March 5.
In the second inning, however, Ladwig looked different. He looked like he wanted to stay on the mound — good posture, working fast and projecting confidence — and he wanted to get hitters out.
“My body language was not very good in the first inning,” he said.
He retired the Aces in order the next three innings, gave up a harmless single in the fifth and sat them down in order in the sixth. The Aces added a run in the seventh and eighth. Ladwig, if nothing else, regained composure, gave WSU a chance and saved the bullpen.
“I took the first inning a little lightly and I let things get to me,” he said. “You could say I was mad. I expect more of myself and I need to come out in the first inning with that mentality.”
Throwing effectively wild can help. Ladwig (3-4, 5.01 ERA) said he needs to throw an 0-2 pitch at the plate, to try and get the batter to chase a bad ball. He needs to throw a fastball inside to back them off the plate. Batters that get in a comfort zone are trouble and Ladwig can rattle them by moving his pitches around.
Pitching with a sense of urgency early in the game is a frequent topic of conversation with Kemnitz and the starters. The bullpen is strong, but Kemnitz does want his starters pitching with a fear of getting yanked or leaning too heavily on relievers bailing them out.
“After the gave up the runs, he got (mad),” Kemnitz said. “He elevated his game. Well, he needs to go in with that elevated game. Get aggressive.”
Palmer, a junior transfer, worked his way into the weekend rotation with solid starts against Arizona State and Kansas State. His first weekend start ended in the second inning after he gave up five hits and six runs against Bradley. He rebounded with 5 2/3 innings against Evansville and kept the Shockers close despite giving up three home runs on a windy day.
“I made myself compete, and (against Bradley) I didn’t do a very good job of that,” Palmer said. “I took (Sunday’s) game like I was coming out of the bullpen. I just went at them every inning and thinking, ‘Hold the score, hold the score,’ not necessarily trying to plan about late in the game.”
WSU goes to SIU tied for first place in the MVC with Missouri State. Winning the conference title will depend largely on continued improvement by the rotation. Adding to that pool of reliable starters is also critical for the MVC Tournament, which will be WSU’s only way to make an NCAA regional.