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Wichita State’s recent success coincides with stable infield defense

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, May 29, 2013, at 7:08 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, May 30, 2013, at 7:43 a.m.

“Comfortable” is the word Wichita State’s infielders use to describe their streak of nine games without an error.

It took most of the season, and an injury, to get coach Gene Stephenson to settle on the current lineup. As the Shockers (39-26) begin NCAA regional play, the infield is stable and the results are solid. The nine-game errorless streak is a record, three more than the mark set in 2012 with many of the same names in different positions.

“We’ve got guys where they’re most comfortable,” first baseman Casey Gillaspie said. “We’re finally comfortable with where we’re playing and we’re in the right spot making plays.”

WSU’s fielding percentage of .977 ranks 18th nationally. While the Shockers played good defense most of the season, a stretch of nine errors in five games told coach Gene Stephenson something needed to change. He leaned on experience, rescuing junior Dayne Parker from the bench to play shortstop and moving junior Erik Harbutz from shortstop to third. Freshman Tanner Dearman proved he could hit left-handers to earn the job at second. With Harbutz at third, sophomore Tyler Baker can devote himself to catching.

“We tried a lot of different combinations,” Stephenson said. “For the last nine games, it’s worked really well.”

Dearman’s emergence and Parker’s return to the lineup make it possible. Second base opened up when Cody Bobbit broke his right hand on April 16 against Kansas State. Within two weeks, Dearman claimed that spot and batting leadoff. When Parker got his chance to play shortstop, he was ready. He is hitting. 321 in his past 10 games and making every routine play.

“I always like when we’re on that left side together,” Harbutz said. “We can mesh together real well. We communicate well.”

Parker makes up for a lack of quickness by doing everything else well. Harbutz and Dearman help with their range. Dearman is quick enough to get to balls behind second base and Harbutz reacts quickly enough to cut off many balls headed for left field. Balls that Parker gloves usually end up as outs.

“He’s a very dependable, solid defensive player,” Stephenson said. “He makes the most of his abilities and is very consistent. He positions himself well. He really has a knack for being close to where the ball is going to be hit, by moving a step or two.”

WSU relied heavily on its defense last season, with Parker at second and Harbutz at short. Gillaspie started at first during the second half of 2012 and earned a spot on the MVC’s All-Defensive Team this season. The formation is close enough to 2012 that it feels familiar to the Shockers.

“Now we’ve got something set and we feel pretty comfortable with it,” Parker said. “We’ve played a lot of games with the defense we’ve got now. Knowing who is to your left and your right, all the time, no matter what — you know what they can do.”

Deadline looms — Stephenson must submit his roster after Thursday morning’s practice.

He is waiting to see how pitcher T.J. McGreevy feels. McGreevy, a senior reliever, sat out last week’s Missouri Valley Conference Tournament with a sore shoulder. If he can pitch, he will make the roster.

If McGreevy isn’t healthy, Stephenson will consider adding Bobbit, as an option off the bench. He will not play the field.

Bobbit, a sophomore who hit 289 in 20 starts, hasn’t played since April 16, when he was hit on the hand by a pitch. Stephenson likes the idea of adding another left-handed hitter to his bench.

“It will be a last-minute decision,” Stephenson said. “(Bobbit) is certainly capable, it appears, of being a pinch-hitter and a pinch-runner. The last two days I’ve been impressed with Bobbit hitting, and he runs well. He can do some things to help us in a pinch.”

On your feet — Seats in Kansas State’s Tointon Family Stadium are sold out.

Standing-room-only tickets go on sale at 8:30 a.m. Friday through kstatesports.com, 800-221-2287 or at the Bramlage Coliseum ticket office.

Additional reserved seats for Saturday and Sunday will be released as the schedule allows.

Check Paul Suellentrop’s Shocker blog at blogs.kansas.com/shockwaves. Reach him at 316-269-6760 or psuellentrop@wichitaeagle.com.

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