Willie Schwanke’s iPhone 6 is full of notes on baseball drills and workouts, the start of the coaching career he plans on after his playing days are done.
From stretching and conditioning to bunt defenses, he’s got a start on the time when he is expected to stand in front of a team and tell them what comes next.
“I’m definitely a plan-driven guy,” he said. “I put grocery lists in there, if I’m really out of things. Due dates for grad school, which is getting a little hectic.”
Schwanke, a senior right-hander at Wichita State, will start on Friday in the season opener against Utah Valley at Eck Stadium. He will throw his first pitch in a game since April 24 and plans on getting through this season healthy after a torn lat muscle ended the previous two prematurely.
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When healthy, Schwanke is a No. 1 starter with a 3.24 ERA and a 5-5 record in his 16 appearances in 2015 and 2016. He started three games in 2015 and nine in 2016, emblematic of the injury problems that plagued the pitching staff the past two seasons.
In 2015, Schwanke made seven appearances and three starts, going 0-2 with a 3.00 ERA. He injured his back on March 20 after throwing 7 2/3 innings in a 3-2 win at Southern Illinois. He was drafted in the 22nd round by Milwaukee and elected to return to WSU.
In 2016, Schwanke went 5-3 with a 3.40 ERA, numbers muddied by his final appearance on April 24 in which he threw one inning and allowed three runs. While he originally described the injury as biceps tightness, the culprit was again his back, although he did not suffer as severe an injury as in 2015.
If the Shockers, 21-37 last season, are to reverse their slide, improvement starts with the pitching staff.
“His No. 1 thing is staying healthy,” pitching coach Mike Steele said. “When he’s healthy, he’s an 89-93 (mph and) sinker guy. Now we have a redshirt senior that’s already been through the muck of baseball, from an injury standpoint, and really gets it.”
Schwanke is optimistic about his back, thanks to Steele’s training routine and changes to his delivery. In Steele’s mind, Schwanke is athletic enough to get away with poor form, until it causes an injury.
In short, Steele saw a pitcher who got the ball out of his glove too late and put stress on the back muscles.
“So it kept doing little micro-tears and finally, you do enough of those, it’s going to bark up and shut down,” Steele said. “It’s a big muscle that’s just being used improperly.”
Now Schwanke lifts the ball out of his glove on time, allowing his legs and arms to do the work more naturally in a line toward the plate. He came to WSU as an infielder and a pitcher, and has realized his pitching technique needed refinement.
“It doesn’t cause me to use my body as much as my arms and legs,” he said. “I’m not throwing across my body as much. I feel really good with my mechanics right now, to say the least.”
WSU pitchers also puts their faith in the exercises that are part of the practice routine under Steele, who plans a 30-day routine for each of them.
“The days you pitch in a game are your easiest days from an arm perspective,” junior right-hander Ben Hecht said. “It’s slow movements, make sure you’re doing it right, and by the end your shoulders are burning and you know it.”
They stretch, use resistance bands, activate their shoulders and strengthen their rotator cuffs.
“We do arm care every day,” sophomore Connor Lungwitz said. “If you don’t do your throwing program and everything, you don’t get to pick up a baseball. It’s that simple.”
Schwanke, from Frisco, Texas, chronicles most of those drills in his phone, preparing for his time as coach. His father, Jim, coached at Oklahoma State and LSU and his son is motivated by following in his path.
“I want to stay involved with baseball as long as I can,” Willie Schwanke said. “Stay involved with helping guys and try to teach them what I’ve learned. I don’t know what I would do without being involved in sports.”
Utah Valley at Wichita State
- When: 3 p.m. Friday
- Where: Eck Stadium
- Radio: KNSS, 1330-AM/98.7-FM
- Online: ESPN3.com