MANHATTAN — Like any college baseball team, Kansas State lists conference championships and trips to the College World Series as its ultimate goals. But the Wildcats didn’t include either on their list of priorities when the season began in February.
They had something more basic in mind coming off their first losing season since 2004.
“Our goal was to not be where we were last year,” junior outfielder Jared King said. “The whole fall, Coach (Brad) Hill was always reiterating how that felt to be there and how we don’t want to be there anymore. That was our motivation.”
So far, that approach has worked brilliantly. K-State (32-14, 9-6 Big 12) has already surpassed its victory total from last season and enters a three-game series at struggling Texas one game behind first-place Oklahoma in the loss column of the Big 12 standings. K-State is considered a lock to make its fourth regional appearance in five years, and, with nine games to go, is in contention for a league championship.
The struggles of last year couldn’t feel farther away.
“Being able to come to the field and know that you’ve got a rock-solid group of guys around you that you know are going to get the job done is a really good mindset for the team,” King said. “If (an opponent) goes up a couple, we are more than capable of coming back with four of five runs in an inning. We’ve seen that and done that.
“Knowing that we always have a chance is mentally good for everyone. We know we have a chance, unlike last year when we got down and it was just like, ‘Oh, we’ve already lost.’ Knowing we can come back at any time is the key for us.”
That confidence comes from a new philosophy at the plate that has transformed the Wildcats into one of the best hitting teams in the nation. The first eight batters in their lineup all carry an average of at least .327 and their team average of .326 ranks third nationally, just behind New Mexico and North Florida, which are tied for first at .328.
Ross Kivett has led the way with a .366 average and 42 runs scored, but Austin Fisher is hitting .356 with 27 RBIs and King is batting .342 with 40 RBIs and six home runs.
In the offseason, Hill hired Mike Clement away from Texas A&M as the team’s new hitting coach. Most would assume he stressed new swinging mechanics, but his emphasis has been on the mental side.
He wants his hitters to keep things simple in the batter’s box, and to focus on being aggressive rather than worrying about technique. That’s a strategy Hill wanted the entire team to adopt. Unlike past years, when stats were king, he started evaluating players based on three simple questions.
Did you play hard? Did you compete? Were you selfless?
Those changes are most noticeable in the dugout, where K-State players have been more vocal, helpful and optimistic during games.
“Sometimes losing is very humbling and sometimes you need that,” Hill said. “You get slapped upside the head and go back to work ready to change things up. I changed some things as coach. I sat back and said, ‘I really need to change some things.’ I didn’t do a good job of coaching and leading. That all goes back to me more than anything else.
“But when you get knocked down like that you are ready to get back up and start fighting. That was the deal for me and our players. Last year wasn’t what we want to be and who we want to be. It all starts here. Control what you can control everyday and be consistent. That’s what we said the first day of practice to set the tone.”
K-State has shown its consistency by winning 14 of its last 17 games, including several midweek wins. A year ago, midweek losses plagued the Wildcats.
Weekend defeats were followed by midweek setbacks and losing streaks formed. Not this season.
“Whenever we lose a game we cut it down the next game and find a way to win,” Fisher said. “Things haven’t snowballed on us this year in any way. We don’t have any losing streaks.”
Pitchers Jake Matthys and Matt Wivinis have helped in that area. Matthys has performed exceptionally as a freshman, going 6-0 with a 1.39 ERA. Wivinis, a sophomore, is 6-1 and has thrown two complete games.
Even when K-State struggles at the plate, it has quality pitchers to turn to.
That harmony has allowed the Wildcats to stop thinking about last season and start aiming for higher goals.
“It is anybody’s conference right now. This is a big opportunity,” Fisher said. “Oklahoma is real good and Baylor is real good. We are up at the top with them. Hopefully, we can find a way to pick up some wins and put us in good position going into our final series. Our ultimate goal is going to the College World Series, but winning the conference would be a big accomplishment.”