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Commentary Bob Lutz: Casey Gillaspie’s explosions are something WSU must build on

  • Published Thursday, April 17, 2014, at 7:55 p.m.

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Casey Gillaspie is like that gigantic display at the end of every fireworks show. They shoot off the little stuff first while everyone waits for the big bangs.

Gillaspie is the big bang on a Wichita State baseball team with a lot of small offense so far this season.

He’s the only regular batting better than .300, though emerging outfielder Daniel Kihle is making some loud pops, too, as WSU’s new leadoff hitter.

Gillaspie started the 2014 season by burning down the house. He had 19 hits in his first 32-at-bats, and has settled in with a .393 batting average. Considering the lack of fearsome hitters around him, or even guys who consistently get on base, it’s been a remarkable run of offense.

“I usually see a couple of good pitches a game,” said the 6-foot-5, 235-pound first baseman, whose draft stock has risen this season to what some expect to be late first-round material. “But there’s usually not much there to swing at.”

Perhaps that will changed.

First-year Wichita State coach Todd Butler, who has been trying to drum up ways to get a beat going with the Shockers’ offense, made a big change earlier this week when he dropped Gillaspie from the No. 3 spot in the batting order to cleanup.

Gillaspie was surprised by the change and even balked at the move some, believing it had something to do with going 0 for 2 in the previous game against Evansville.

“I kind of wore Coach Butler out about it,” Gillaspie said. “But 4-hole, 3-hole, it’s all the same. It’s about having an opportunity.”

The idea is that Gillaspie will have more chances to drive in runs hitting fourth, but that’s only if those above him in the order — now Kihle, Tanner Dearman and Garrett Bayliff — consistently get on base.

It worked for one game. The Shockers will test the lineup again in a Missouri Valley Conference weekend series against Southern Illinois that begins Friday night at Eck Stadium.

There’s only one given with the Shockers’ offense — Gillaspie will hit.

He had a 20-game hitting streak broken with his 0-fer against Indiana State on Sunday and credits a rigorous offseason workout program for his improved bat.

The switch-hitting Gillaspie has always been dangerous, but he’s improved his averaging nearly 100 points over last season.

His OPS — combined on-base and slugging percentage — has risen from .820 his freshman season to .964 his sophomore season to 1.194.

“Working with Coach (Brian) Walker and with Coach Butler has really helped me a lot,” Gillaspie said. “I probably worked harder during the offseason than I’ve ever worked. And I’m matured a little bit. I went to the Cape Cod League last summer and saw a lot of good arms. I had to figure out some things.”

Gillaspie’s brother, Conor, was a .362 career hitter at Wichita State from 2006-08 who now plays for the Chicago White Sox. He was a tremendous hitter but he didn’t have his brother’s sock.

Almost four of every five Conor Gillaspie hits was a single. Meanwhile, 66 of Casey’s 182 hits as a Shocker have gone for extra bases, including 28 homers.

“Casey Gillaspie is one of the finest hitters I’ve ever been around in the same dugout,” said Butler, a former SEC assistant at Alabama and Arkansas. “I’ve seen Todd Helton at Tennessee, Todd Walker at LSU, Matt LaPorta at Florida, Jason Kipnis at Arizona State and Kentucky. But to watch Casey every day and to be in the dugout and locker room with him — not only is he a great player and fantastic hitter, but he’s a fantastic person.”

Gillaspie hasn’t let the Shockers’ disappointing season so far weigh on him. He has remained positive, Butler said, and his leadership has been strong.

“There’s still hope for us,” Gillaspie said. “No doubt. We haven’t even scratched the surface of what we’re capable of.

“It just hasn’t clicked yet, but the best time to click is at the end of the season. We’re still going to be a good baseball team this year. You have to stay positive and keep working hard.”

Gillaspie said he’s tried to put thoughts about the Major League Baseball draft out of his mind, even as he ascends the board.

He’s a switch-hitter, a big plus. He’s big and strong with great power, a big plus. He’s gotten better defensively as a first baseman and, he said, also feels comfortable as a corner outfielder, positions he played when he was a high school player in Omaha.

“But right now I’m more concerned with how our team is going,” Gillaspie said. “I want to win. At the end of the season, I’ll think about what my options are. But I don’t worry about what scouts might be thinking. I think about this team.”

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

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