Wichita State baseball coach Todd Butler starts Missouri Valley Conference play with a full roster and the full attention of his players.
For the first 19 games, achieving that unified approach came slowly. Eight players missed games due to NCAA suspensions for improper benefits, including five who sat out nine games. Add that to the normal transition of coaching staffs — and there isn’t much normal about replacing Gene Stephenson — and the first month of the season came with plenty of challenges.
The Shockers (12-7) open the MVC schedule against Missouri State (8-10) at Eck Stadium on Friday. The Shockers are picked first in the preseason poll with the Bears second.
Butler spent the early weeks of the season trying to figure out his lineup. The suspensions slowed that process, even more than Butler planned on. It took him time to decide on his best nine and it took players time to relax and understand how to play for the new coach. Injuries to outfielders Mikel Mucha (fractured left leg) and Daniel Kihle (broken hamate bone left wrist) hurt. Kihle was hitting .370 in 11 starts in the outfield when he injured his wrist.
“As a new coach, you kind of forget about the transition,” he said. “A guy might have played last year that I don't have playing this year. We've had to work through that. I've had to really have some individual meetings trying to explain what their roles are.”
Most of the transition appears past. The suspensions are done. The Shockers enter MVC play after a 3-3 road trip that included a win at Oklahoma State, a 2-1 series loss at No. 19 UC Santa Barbara and a two-game split at Arizona State. The Shockers defeated the Sun Devils 12-9 on Wednesday. Butler settled into a consistent lineup at the top of the order during the trip.
“I think this week was very good, going on the road,” he said. “We're an improved team. Everyone is buying in and getting on the same page. I didn’t think it would take this many games.”
The Shockers have lost five one-run games and there is no mystery to what happened. They scored eight runs in those losses.
“That’s frustrating,” catcher Tyler Baker said. “It’s been a lack of focus where we don’t get going until the late innings. We need to get going right off the bat.”
In their victories, WSU is hitting .350. In its losses, .202.
“This team can be an offensive team, but it has to learn to be an offensive team three games in a row,” Butler said.
WSU’s starting rotation has been consistent. Junior A.J. Ladwig, senior Cale Elam and freshman Sam Tewes have started 14 of WSU’s 19 games. Ladwig and Elam are filling their expected roles. Tewes showed maturity in the fall and is delivering on that promise this spring.
“There's never any lack of focus with him,” Baker said. “You never know with a freshman. He does not act like a freshman. He knows what he's going to do and he listens to me.”
WSU plays seven of its next eight games at Eck Stadium. Nebraska visits on Tuesday before a game at Oral Roberts on Wednesday. No. 9 Cal State Fullerton comes to Wichita for a weekend series beginning March 28.