Depth and competition emerged as the themes of Wichita State's fall baseball practice. Coach Gene Stephenson couldn't be happier, because he thinks his locker room is full of players who know they must perform to be in the lineup next spring.
Examples are everywhere, and none is more prominent than in the outfield. Travis Bennett transferred to WSU from Northern Iowa with one season of eligibility remaining and credentials as the Missouri Valley Conference's Newcomer of the Year in 2009.
In many situations, that means a starting job is wrapped up.
"You come in, and you think you have a spot, being a senior and having me come down here for my last year, but I see all these guys around me with a lot of speed and range in the outfield," Bennett said. "Then you think DH, but we have so many hitters on our team. You never know if you're going to DH or not."
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That atmosphere is how Stephenson plans to fix an offense that slumped to a .275 batting average and hitters who struck out almost twice as much as they walked in 2009. Six or seven outfielders made their case in the fall for at-bats. Third base and catcher offer at least two, and maybe three, options. Those who can't defend will stack up at the DH.
In 2009, Stephenson often lived with slumping players in the lineup because no alternatives existed. It should be different in 2010.
"We're going to be a much better offensive team," Stephenson said. "There are more guys with a better understanding of taking the ball back up the middle and going the other way. It makes them much tougher when it comes to putting the ball in play with two strikes."
Bennett, who hit .338 with 15 doubles in UNI's final season of baseball, is one of the hitters who performed well in the fall. He hit .310 in seven fall series games and doubled twice. Defense is on his mind. He wants to spend the winter getting faster.
"My fielding, I really realized I need to work on that if I want to play on this team," he said.
Stephenson can look down the left-field line to where WSU's indoor practice facility is under construction for help. It should be completed sometime this month, in time for Bennett and others to work on defense.
"We need to have more consistency on our overall team defense," Stephenson said. "There are some misplays that are happening that do not show up in the scorebook."
At third, freshman Nate Goro (the superior defender) and redshirt freshman Johnny Coy (who hit .483 to lead all hitters in the series) both improved. At catcher, Stephenson can choose between senior Cody Lassley (who started 53 games in 2009) and sophomore Chris O'Brien (whose 35 RBI ranked third on the team). Sophomore transfer Ryan Hege hit .444 in the fall series.
"This is the best hitting team we've had in any fall I've been here by far," Lassley said. "Everybody, up and down the lineup, crushed the ball. It's going to be hard in the spring to see who's going to be starting and who's not."
The hitters benefited from not facing returning starting pitchers Tim Kelley, Jordan Cooper and Brian Flynn. While they rested weary arms, pitching coach Brent Kemnitz tried to envision his bullpen plans. That group will get a big boost if seniors Logan Hoch and Tyler Fleming and sophomore Grant Muncrief are healthy this spring. Hoch, coming off shoulder surgery, is closest to full strength. He threw 4 2/3 innings in the fall series. Fleming, also sidelined in 2009 by shoulder surgery, had surgery Monday to clean up scar tissue. He could be ready to throw by December.
Muncrief pitched early in 2009 before elbow surgery ended his season. Originally thought to be out for 2010, his recovery is speeding along. He may be ready in February, about 10 months after surgery. He is throwing bullpens at about 75 percent.
"It's going really good," Muncrief said. "This summer I stuck around and took summer classes here and rehabbed every day. That got me on the right foot."
Freshman T. J. McGreevy made the best impression of the newcomers. He went 2-0 with a 3.55 ERA in the fall series.
"He showed a lot of composure this fall," Lassley said. "T.J. throws hard, which is a big plus, but he can throw every pitch for a strike. And he has confidence to go along with it."
Worth noting — WSU opens the season on Feb. 23 at Kansas. The first home series begins on March 2 against North Dakota.... Reliever Cobey Guy led all pitchers with 18 strikeouts in 11 innings. He finished off Black's 4-3 series win with six strikeouts in 3 2/3 scoreless innings on Wednesday.... WSU is auctioning the old artificial turf logos from Eck Stadium at goshockers.com. Bidding closes on Dec. 4. Money raised goes to the baseball program.