Wichita State baseball coach Gene Stephenson, can you remember the last time a freshman non-scholarship player was in your opening-day lineup?
"I'm thinking," Stephenson said. "I think I'd have to go all the way back to the very first team (in 1978). I'm not sure we've ever had one."
Erik Harbutz, then, is making history. He started at third base last weekend when the Shockers played three games in Alabama. He'll likely be there today as WSU (3-0) opens at home with a two-game series against North Dakota.
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The Northwest product signed with Butler Community College after receiving virtually no attention from Division I schools. Players with perceived deficiencies sometimes end up on the junior college level, and Harbutz's list was lengthy.
"I think (Division I coaches) just thought I was too small," Harbutz said. "Not too great of an arm, not too much power, not too fast. I don't know if they really saw too much potential in me."
Stephenson did, though, and even though he didn't have a scholarship to give, Stephenson offered the opportunity to play Division I baseball. Eventually.
"I told him that I thought he had a real chance to contribute and to be something in a year or two," Stephenson said. "He just progressed faster than even we thought."
Harbutz, a 6-foot, 170-pound switch-hitter, first showed in the fall the possibility of making an immediate impact.
His ability at the plate — he hit .585 at Northwest last year — forced the coaching staff to take a closer look, and he earned the same high marks as practices moved indoors.
"After fall practice, none of us thought he was going to be a starter," Stephenson said. "But we thought he could be a contributor. In the spring practice drills, we had the opportunity to see him a lot and he probably swung the bat better than anybody on the team. So we really need to make a place for him.
Said Harbutz: "I saw the opportunity as 'Hey, I'm going to give it my all and see where it takes me,' " Harbutz said. "But I also wanted to set a goal of playing as a freshman, not really knowing where."
A natural shortstop, Harbutz was blocked from playing there by sophomore Tyler Grimes.
Freshman Nate Goro was the projected starter at third base, but Harbutz's hitting enabled him to grab the spot. In Alabama, he was 4 for 11 with four RBIs and four walks while batting second.
"Has he exceeded expectations? I think no," Stephenson said. "He hasn't exceeded expectations we had. But he has accelerated those expectations."
Harbutz's bat will likely play at any position, and since he has experience on the left side of the infield, third base isn't too much of an adjustment.
"The ball just gets to you faster," he said.
Though the plan was always to play as a freshman, the uncharted territory Harbutz is covering hasn't yet sunk in.
"It's a little bit of a whirlwind right now," Harbutz said. "I just want to get on base, make the plays and when I'm in the lineup do whatever I can."
Springer honored — WSU junior DH Preston Springer hit .643 with two home runs and six RBI to earn MVC Player of the Week honors. Springer went 9 for 14, walked three times and didn't strike out in three games in the South Alabama Tournament.