Wichita State pitching coach Brent Kemnitz can call on an All-American for any situation. Their pictures fill a wall in his office, a veritable bullpen of role models.
When he talked with sophomore lefty Albert Minnis earlier this season, he pointed to Darren Dreifort and Braden Looper, Shockers who made the major leagues after star-studded college careers in relief.
“You can get to where you want to be working out of the bullpen,” Kemnitz told Minnis.
Working out of the bullpen works for Minnis this season, as he proved again Saturday in a series-clinching 5-1 win over Creighton. He threw 4 2/3 innings, struck out three and didn’t allow a run. On Tuesday, he shut down Nebraska for five innings in which he allowed one run and struck out four. For the season, Minnis has compiled a 1.37 earned run average in 26 1/3 relief innings, with 22 strikeouts and 10 walks.
“He kind of resisted it early in the year, because he likes starting,” Kemnitz said. “His makeup is perfect for a reliever, because he’s a bulldog and he loves pressure. That seems like a niche that totally fits him.”
Minnis will likely be a key figure in relief this week in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament at Hammons Field. The third-seeded Shockers (35-23) open the tournament against sixth-seeded Southern Illinois (28-27) on Tuesday. WSU relies more heavily on its bullpen than in most seasons, and Minnis, Foster Vielock and Cale Elam make that strategy work. No starter owns a complete game. Minnis ranks fourth on the team with 60 2/3 innings, some as a starter. Vielock and Elam lead the team with 25 appearances apiece and Elam is tied for the team lead with six victories.
Minnis is the long-relief expert in that group, with six outings of three or more innings. The coaches are convinced he is most effective as a reliever. Minnis, perhaps reluctant to be permanently labeled a bullpen guy, doesn’t sound so sure. He made six starts early in the season, going 1-4 with a 5.48 ERA. After four encouraging relief appearances, he earned a start at Evansville and gave up four earned runs and walked three in three innings.
He was sent back to the bullpen, and it’s worked out well.
“The numbers will say I’m better at that,” he said. “I just want to be a piece of the puzzle for this team. If they like me in that role, coming out of the bullpen, I’m more than happy to do it. It’s still fun, either way. It’s still pitching, either way.”
What makes Minnis effective, especially in contrast to WSU’s starters, are his swing-and-miss pitches. Shocker starters rely on location and deception and let their defense work. Minnis can get groundballs, but he also can dial up strikeouts. His 46 rank third on the team, two behind Vielock.
“He’s got nasty stuff,” Kemnitz said. “He’s got a fastball around 90 (mph) with great life. He’s got good bite on his breaking ball.”
With Minnis in control, the Shockers finished off Creighton and kept their NCAA at-large resume in solid shape. They finished third in the MVC, ranked the No. 6 conference nationally, and start the week with a No. 44 power rating (RPI) compiled against a schedule ranked No. 42 for its strength. Those numbers should put WSU on the board for discussion this week as the 10-person NCAA selection committee meets to decide 34 at-large slots.
Even better, WSU could win the tournament for the first time since 2009.
“We want to have a sure ticket,” Minnis said. “The goal is still to win it all. We’re not going into Springfield thinking that we can lose a couple.”
Few expected WSU to be an at-large candidate when it started the season 10-10 and limped to a 15-13 record at the end of March. The Shockers methodically pushed their record to 12 games above .500, helped by winning six straight mid-week games. They enter the tournament winners of seven of eight games.
“We have a lot of confidence,” shortstop Erik Harbutz said. “We’ve been playing some pretty good baseball.”