Success or failure sometimes seems irrelevant to the experience in the Cape Cod League. What matters is being there and playing against the nation’s best college baseball players for the summer.
“Being around the elite of the elite was a great experience.” Wichita State catcher Gunnar Troutwine said. “Seeing that kind of competition kind of slows the game down for you a little bit. With the pitchers being so good, you are going to fail and you have to accept that and let the game come to you.”
The Shockers begin fall practice with a scrimmage on Friday at Eck Stadium. Changing course after two losing seasons started with summer experience in places such as the Cape Cod League, Alaska and North Carolina. Troutwine, a junior, and sophomore Greyson Jenista played in the Cape. Sophomore third baseman Alec Bohm hit 11 home runs and Baseball America ranked him the No. 1 prospect in the Coastal Plain League. Sophomore pitcher Connor Lungwitz struck out 41 hitters and walked five in eight appearances in the Alaska Baseball League.
For the next six weeks, coach Todd Butler will see if those lessons learned mean anything for a spring schedule that starts on Feb. 17. The Shockers will scrimmage on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon. The fall scrimmage series will begin in early November.
The Cape is often a turning point for players who come out that summer against the nation’s best confident that they belong. Jenista, last season’s Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year, hit .229 in 42 games for Cotuit. Troutwine hit .278 in 27 games for Chatham and earned a spot on the league’s all-star team.
“They go to the Cape and play with them and they go, ‘Hey, I can fit in with these guys,’ ” Butler said.
For Troutwine and Bohm, fitting in with top players meant sharpening their defensive skills. WSU sent Bohm to the Wilmington Sharks to work on fielding with coach Scott Wingo, a former infielder at South Carolina. Troutwine sharpened his receiving skills with a new stance and footwork.
Wingo’s key words for Bohm, who is 6-foot-5, were “get small,” reminding him to stay compact and low to the ground when fielding and throwing.
“I wanted to keep hitting, but I really wanted to focus on defense,” Bohm said. “I took a lot of groundballs every day.”
Butler said Jenista and Bohm are in better physical condition, which will help their quickness on defense. Bohm started 23 games at third base, where he committed 10 errors, and can also play first.
“For a big man, his agility and footwork is really improving,” Butler said.
Jenista started at first and in right field last season and Butler will continue to evaluate him in the outfield during the fall. His time of 6.6 seconds in the 60-yard dash is down from 6.9 last year and his weight is down from 240 to 210.
“(Jenista) is vastly improved from last year, and I think that’s from playing summer ball,” Butler said. “He is more athletic and he is running extremely well for a big man. He has a fantastic arm in the outfield.”
For Jenista, his sophomore season is about more than improving on his numbers after he hit .326 with five home runs. On a team without a senior position player, sophomores must lead. If a freshman doesn’t run out a ground ball, it’s Jenista’s job to point out the error.
“I can jump guys a little more, if they’re not working,” he said. “This is fall. It’s not a joke. This is serious. Guys get after it. Games start on Friday and you’re going to see a different side of people.”
Three questions for fall baseball practice
1. Can the Shockers win again?
The most important question, without question.
The first month is crucial. The schedule starts with seven home games before a road trip to Louisiana Tech, an NCAA regional team, Oklahoma and LSU. While things don’t get much easier after that, the Shockers can give themselves a chance with a solid start. That didn’t happen in 2015 (6-12) or 2016 (4-11).
Before this team can worry about a winning record or the Missouri Valley Conference title, it must survive the first month.
2. Who’s that coaching in the bullpen?
The pitching staff must improve and that task goes to new pitching coach Mike Steele. He replaces Brent Kemnitz, who resigned last spring after 38 seasons.
Steele, most recently at Long Beach State, takes over a group that ranked last in the MVC with a 5.97 ERA. The return of Willie Schwanke, who is Friday-night quality starter when healthy, is an important bonus. Cody Tyler went 3-3 with a 4.47 ERA in seven MVC starts. Zach Lewis, Connor Lungwitz and Clayton McGinness return with starting experience. Keep an eye on transfer Ben Hecht, who spent his freshman season at Illinois State, and freshman lefty Alex Segal.
Reducing walks, wild pitches and hit batsmen is Steele’s first job.
3. Who plays in the outfield?
Mikel Mucha, WSU’s best defender, is gone and that leaves center field, most likely, to sophomore Travis Young. He started 10 games in center field and surged in the second half last season to hit .317. Sophomore Dayton Dugas returns in right field. Greyson Jenista will get a look in the outfield and Josh DeBacker started 12 games in left last season.