Wichita State pitcher A.J. Ladwig started in a great place — he threw strikes all the time. Sometimes, he threw too many strikes.
“There’s times when you need to throws strikes, but there’s times when you need to throw balls,” Ladwig said.
Ladwig, a junior from Omaha, started to find that right balance late last season with a terrific postseason performance. This season, his pitch selection and accuracy are impeccable. He enters Friday’s series opener at Evansville with a 1.15 ERA and a 2-4 record. In eight starts, he has struck out 39 and walked six. In two Missouri Valley Conference starts he is 1-1 with a 0.60 ERA with 14 strikeouts and no walks.
WSU (16-16, 2-4 MVC) will attempt to end a six-game losing streak at Evansville (20-11, 2-1) on Friday in a marquee pitching matchup. Evansville junior Kyle Freeland is projected as a first-round draft pick in June. The MVC is loaded with talented Friday starters and Ladwig is in that group this season. His ERA is down from 4.54 last season and opponents are hitting .247, down from .305 last season.
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“This is the A.J. Ladwig we always thought he could be,” WSU catcher Tyler Baker said. “He can spot up with any pitch at any time. He can throw it in the dirt at any time. Whatever (sign) I put down, I know it’s going to happen.”
Ladwig threw plenty of strikes earlier in his career, but often struggled to put batters away with two strikes. Now he’s willing and able to expand the strike zone and give hitters a different look by throwing a ball in the dirt or moving a pitch up high.
Batters can’t get comfortable, knowing all his pitches are going to be close to the strike zone.
“He’s gotten a lot smarter as far as not throwing too many quality strikes,” pitching coach Brent Kemnitz said. “He was leaving a lot of pitches for them to hit. Now he’s doing a better job of moving (a hitter’s) feet and head.”
Ladwig’s sophomore season hit a low point in an 11-9 win at Missouri State. He handed back most of an 8-0 lead and didn’t make it out of the third inning. He rebounded quickly, throwing with more confidence in his next two regular-season outings and gave the Shockers two strong postseason performances. He threw a complete-game victory against Creighton in the MVC Tournament and pitched six strong innings in a 3-1 loss to Arkansas in the NCAA regional.
As a junior, Ladwig has continued that progress. He handles the running game better and is more composed when he gets in a jam, able to keep innings under control and his team in the game. His velocity on the fastball is up to 88-92 mph and his breaking ball is tighter.
“I just grew up, pretty much,” Ladwig said. “That comes with maturity — knowing when to throw strikes and knowing when to throw balls. I never really focused on throwing a bouncing ball, or changing their eye level, or throwing a high fastball or a slider out of the zone. It’s an instinct now.”
First-year WSU coach Todd Butler watched the NCAA regional effort closely from the Arkansas dugout. When he took the WSU job in June, after eight seasons as an assistant at Arkansas, he knew he could rely on Ladwig.
“I was extremely excited that he was back,” Butler said. “He has given us quality starts every time out.”
Ladwig’s won-loss record has taken the hits for WSU’s inconsistent offense, something coaches and teammates want to rectify. Butler and Kemnitz considered changing the rotation this weekend to give Ladwig some relief before deciding to stick with him in the opening slot. The Shockers have been shut out twice in Ladwig’s eight starts and scored a total of 20 runs.
“He has done his part and he keeps his composure even though he’s been the tough-luck guy,” Butler said.