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Commentary Bob Lutz: Aside from one very big change at the top, WSU baseball opening day was typical

  • Published Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, at 8:21 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, at 7:30 a.m.

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Brent Kemnitz is starting his 36th season as Wichita State’s pitching coach. If anybody was going to feel a little out of sorts Friday when the Shockers opened the Todd Butler era, it would be him.

“It was a little different,” said Kemnitz, who had previously worked for only one boss, Gene Stephenson. “But (Butler and I) have been together for eight months now. We went through fall practice together. I think we all had a pretty good game plan. It was exciting.”

The Shockers’ bats were quiet through six innings, but WSU scored five runs late to beat SIU-Edwardsville, 6-1, at Eck Stadium. It might have been warm enough to melt snow, but it wasn’t warm enough for a comfortable baseball game.

Wichita State struggled with SIU-Edwardsville starter Ryan Daniels, who pitched five shutout innings. The only Shocker threat was squelched by a base-running mistake by senior Micah Green, who broke off third when he shouldn’t have on an infield grounder with no outs and was thrown out at the plate.

Green heard about it from third-base coach Brian Walker, who has taken over a duty that formerly belonged to Stephenson. Butler also chimed in with some thoughts.

“That kind of caught me off guard,” said Butler, who Shocker fans will find out is very much an attention-to-detail coach. “We’re going to cover it and hopefully not make that mistake again.”

Later, when WSU’s Mikel Mucha was called out at first base after an attempted sacrifice bunt, Butler got into his first altercation with an umpire, Larry Waggoner. But it wasn’t much of an altercation, honestly, even though it appeared Mucha was easily safe at a time when the Shockers trailed 1-0, and would have had the bases loaded with no outs.

First-base coach Jon Coyne threw up his arms, but said little to Waggoner. I expected to see an animated reaction from Butler. Instead, he walked slowly toward first base, talked briefly with Waggoner and then returned to his perch in the dugout.

“A very small argument,” Butler said after the game. “I used to sprint to the umpire and maybe scare them, but as I’ve gotten older now I walk to them. And I walk a lot slower.”

The Shockers’ bats were in slow motion against Daniels, who lasted 63 pitches in SIU-Edwardsville’s season opener. He consistently got ahead of Wichita State’s hitters and didn’t walk anyone.

Wichita State was able to get to soft-throwing left-hander Zach Malach and the third Cougars pitcher, Sam Hopkins, for seven hits and six runs in three innings. That offense was a relief for Butler, who had learned earlier Friday that NCAA penalties that resulted from an investigation into improper apparel benefits would be lighter than originally feared.

Eight WSU players will serve suspensions, including catcher Tyler Baker and senior infielders Erk Harbutz and Dayne Parker, all of whom were unavailable Friday.

After weeks of speculation, finally the Shockers know what they face.

“We’re excited to get this first victory as a Shocker and hopefully we’ll continue to improve and play even better tomorrow,” Butler said.

It was strange to watch a Wichita State game that didn’t include Stephenson, who resurrected the school’s baseball program in 1978. When the Shockers made a mistake offensively during Friday’s game, I kept looking down at the third-base coaching box to check Stephenson’s reaction, which was never well disguised. But he wasn’t there.

“It’s a little different now, but we know what to expect,” said Green, a senior who played in 153 games for Stephenson. “There’s a little different style now. These coaches are all about getting us the information. Seeing the little things, paying attention to pitchers and what they’re going to throw. They want to make sure everyone is on the same page. But it’s not that much different.

“It’s really exciting to get our first win. We were confident, but I think a lot of us were a little bit nervous, too.”

Truth be told, even an old warhorse like Kemnitz had to have more than the normal butterflies for the opener.

“I’ve been here forever, but opening day is always exciting,” Kemnitz said. “You’re always a little bit uneasy. ‘Where am I sitting my stuff? What chair am I sitting in?’ Those kinds of things. From that standpoint, it was a little different. But when the baseball game starts, you just lock in and worry about how the game is going to play out.”

The biggest difference for Kemnitz is that he stayed near Butler’s side throughout the game, positioning himself near the on-deck circle. In previous years, Kemnitz stationed himself at the other end of the dugout.

If there was a sign that things are changing, that’s probably the one that stood out most. Otherwise, it was mostly business as usual.

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @boblutz.

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