MANHATTAN — When Wichita State’s batting practice ended, coach Gene Stephenson told his players to fetch the baseballs outside the Tointon Family Stadium wall.
Johnny Coy put most of them there, most over the left-field wall. Coy, WSU’s senior designated hitter, looked like the power threat of old during the afternoon session, much like he did last week when he hit .391 and drove in eight runs in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
“He’s begun to relax and enjoy the experience and just let things happen,” Stephenson said. “I expect he’ll have a good series this weekend.”
The Shockers need Coy’s pop. As a junior, he hit .344 with nine home runs and 63 RBIs. His senior season never got rolling, at least not until recently. He enters the regional hitting .270 with three home runs, one last week. While he didn’t overpower pitchers in the tournament, he did cut down on his strikeouts, walked three times and made consistent contact.
“It was a mental struggle pretty much the whole year,” Coy said. “I couldn’t get going and when I did get going and hit a ball hard, it would be right at somebody.”
Stephenson called Coy into his office for a talk before the conference tournament. He told Coy to forget about the regular season. He told Coy the Shockers needed his production in the middle of the order. Now that he is on a five-game hitting streak, the problems of the past seem far removed from a sunny day at an NCAA regional.
“It doesn’t even feel like that happened in the same season,” he said. “I don’t worry about that.”
On the roster — WSU senior reliever T.J. McGreevy threw on Thursday and will be on the roster.
Shoulder stiffness kept him out of action during the conference tournament and Stephenson wasn’t sure if he would be ready for the regional.
McGreevy, from Topeka, is 4-2 with a 3.72 ERA in 46 innings.
The Capital Kid — In order to reach Kansas State senior right fielder Jon Davis’ hometown of Juneau, Alaska, there are two options — by plane or by boat.
Juneau, the state’s capital, is buried deep in the southeast part of the state and, despite having a population of more than 30,000, has no roads leading to it — just mountains to the north, Canada to the east and the Gulf of Alaska and Pacific Ocean to the west and south.
Not exactly a place known for putting out Division I baseball talent.
“It doesn’t change anything about who I am or how I play, but I recognize that it’s unusual to be a Division I player from Alaska,” Davis said. “There’s not many of us, so it’s pretty cool.”
Davis has started every game for the Wildcats this season, hitting .314 with five home runs and 35 RBIs to earn honorable mention All-Big 12 honors.
Davis’ family moved to California for his final years of high school to nurture his baseball talent and he hopped schools from Cal State Fullerton to Palomar College, a two-year school, before landing in Manhattan.
And he hates having to answer for stereotypes about his home state, where he spends his summers commercial fishing.
“People say the stupidest things,” Davis said. “We live in normal houses. We do not go out and shoot our meals every night, we go to the grocery store. Only big difference is I live on a boat all summer.”
No time to relax — K-State’s lineup won’t allow Shocker starter Cale Elam any soft touches. All of the projected starters hit .289 or better, eight of them better than .300.
The Wildcats can grind away pitchers because it’s not much of a break to get to the bottom of the order. WSU experienced that in a 7-6 loss to the Wildcats on April 9, a game it led 6-1 in the eighth inning. K-State tied it with five runs in the eighth, with No. 7 hitter Davis singling in a run and No. 8 hitter Austin Fisher doubling in a run.
While the Shockers saw the Wildcats twice, Elam and catcher Tyler Baker didn’t plan to immerse themselves in a scouting report.
“They all can hit,” Baker said. “You can’t do too much scouting, because then you can over-scout. You’re going to try to pitch to their weaknesses, and you’ve got to see what (Elam) is throwing that day and what his strengths are this day.”
Elam will take a general knowledge of the hitters into the game and see which of his pitches work best.
“You can’t go too much off a scouting report, based on other people throwing, because that’s not you,” he said. “I have an idea, but we’re just going to go out there and play our game.”
Wicked good at baseball — The mix of accents in the Bryant dugout is something to behold. The tiny school in Smithfield, R.I., making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, has a roster full of players from the East Coast — mainly Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
There are a few guys from Connecticut thrown in for good measure.
“It’s kind of funny, actually,” said Bryant center fielder Carl Anderson, who is hitting .340 and leads the Bulldogs in RBIs (47) and stolen bases (22). “We don’t think we talk funny, but we get around other people and they’re always pointing out our accents. We like to say, ‘Well at least there’s nobody on the roster with a true Boston accent,’ because that would be noticeable.”
The Bulldogs flew out of Logan International Airport in Boston on Wednesday morning to Kansas City, then took a bus to Manhattan, where they marveled at the expanses of farmland and gathered as a group to watch Wednesday night’s thunderstorms in awe.
“I’ve never been to the middle part of the country, and I don’t think most of us have,” Anderson said. “The lack of trees kind of got me ... they’re everywhere where we’re from. It’s kind of a problem, there’s so many of them.”
What hasn’t been a problem for the Bulldogs is winning — the Northeast Conference champions are 44-16 and have won 11 of their last 12 games.
“We haven’t been on this big of a stage, ever, or played in a game like this,” said Bryant pitcher Pete Kelich, who will get the start against Arkansas. “But this is what we’ve been aiming for, this is where we want to be.”
Pitch perfect — Arkansas’ pitching staff has been one of the best in college baseball, boasting the best ERA (1.87) and fewest hits allowed (6.78) in the nation.
The problem for the Razorbacks, who were picked No. 1 in the country in the preseason, has been at the plate.
Arkansas is hitting just .260 as a team — 11th in the SEC — while going 37-20 and finishing second in the SEC East.
“We’ve been relying on our pitching all season,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “Offensively, it’s been week-to-week or sometimes even game-to-game, which has been a little frustrating. At this level and this point of the season, though, if you can pitch you’ve got a chance to win every game you can play in. And we can pitch.”
Arkansas has three starters with an ERA below 2.00 — All-SEC selection Ryne Stanek (9-2, 1.40), Randall Fant (5-1, 1.92) and Friday’s starter against Bryant, Barrett Astin (4-4, 1.94).
“We focus on what we can do, and we’re not at the plate,” Astin said. “We still feel like if we do our job, (hitters) will hopefully do their job and win us a ballgame when we need them to.”
Interesting timing — K-State decided the right time to put up the Wildcats’ Big 12 championship banner at Tointon Stadium was as Wichita State was beginning practice Thursday afternoon.
Two grounds crew workers drilled the sign into the right-field wall as the Shockers were playing catch in the outfield. It took about 10 minutes.
So, was it a case of crafty mind games on K-State’s part? Hardly. The grounds crew workers said they’d been told to put the sign up earlier in the day but just didn’t have any time to do it until later in the afternoon.
On your feet — 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. All seats, about 4,000, have been sold.