In between naps, Wichita State first baseman Ryan Tinkham hits baseballs hard and frequently.
“I rely on naps,” he said. “Everybody asks, ‘Why can’t you sleep?’ If I had the answer to it, I’d be more than happy to give it. I just don’t.”
Insomnia isn’t keeping Tinkham, a junior from Oxnard (Calif.) College, from leading WSU’s lineup and playing good defense. He is hitting .365 with a Missouri Valley Conference-leading 15 doubles and five home runs. He extended his 15-game hitting streak with two home runs in Tuesday’s 5-4 loss in 10 innings at Kansas State.
The Shockers (13-23, 5-4 MVC) play at Bradley (23-9, 3-3) in a series starting Friday with a chance to stay close to MVC leaders Dallas Baptist and Missouri State. WSU takes a five-game losing streak on the road in which Tinkham provides one of the few bright spots.
“He’s been Mr. Consistent,” WSU coach Todd Butler said. “Now he’s starting to hit with some power. He’s a threat and I moved him up to the two-hole so he could get an extra at-bat in the ninth inning, hopefully.”
While Tinkham’s resuts are superb, his preparation for his first season of NCAA Division I baseball wasn’t easy.
He came to WSU in August recovering from shoulder surgery and couldn’t throw during fall practices. He started to swing a bat in late October. Tinkham tore the labrum in his right shoulder in high school sliding into second base and dislocated it last spring sliding into home, resulting in what he calls two surgeries and two cleanups. Butler recruited him to catch, but the limits on his throwing make that position impractical.
Tinkham, from Simi Valley, Calif., puts a positive spin on the shoulder injuries. While rehab often kept him from catching, his offense kept growing. He hit .346 with two home runs as a freshman at Oxnard and .360 with four home runs as a sophomore. His defensive abilities started out ahead of his hitting in high school.
“As bad as it was to have shoulder surgery, I think it was the best thing for me to get more offensive,” he said. “When all you can do is hit, that’s what you do. The first thing back from recovery is you hit before you throw.”
He struggled with insomnia most of the fall. After a period of improvement, he is again struggling to sleep through the night. After Tuesday’s game, he went to bed at 1 a.m. and woke up at 4.
“I’m all right with four or five hours of sleep,” he said. “I’d try to take sleeping pills or sleeping medicine or whatever it was. It might put me to sleep, but I’d wake up at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., and couldn’t fall back to sleep. Some nights are better than others.”
Naps help. So does a work ethic that started in high schoool with the help of Royal (Calif.) High coach Tony Ortega. They met during Tinkham’s freshman season and built a strong friendship around the batting cage. When they weren’t hitting, they talked about hitting.
“We hit and hit and hit, hours after practice,” Ortega said. “He was the kind of kid you had to tell to take a day off.”
Tinkham started to make big strides when he added a leg kick to his batting routine and produced more power. He also quit football after his sophomore season, with plenty of encouragement from Ortega, who couldn’t see a future catching passes for a skinny 6-foot-5 kid.
“He’ll tell you he was really good,” Ortega said. “I don’t think he ever caught a touchdown pass. He’s a rail now and it was 10 times worse in high school.”
Tinkham doesn’t regret giving up football, but he does want the record straight. He did catch a touchdown pass as a sophomore.
“That was his first lie,” Tinkham said. “I had one in my career. JV game. Ten yards.”
A sense of humor can help just as much as naps and extra swings.
Ortega gave Tinkham the duty of cleaning and maintaining home plate and the batter’s box after practices. When Tinkham didn’t groom the dirt satisfactorily one day, Ortega called him and voiced his displeasure.
“I was just letting him have it, calling him every name in the book, telling him how bad it looked,” Ortega remembers. “After about (five) minutes of me ripping him, he says, ‘Hey coach, say ‘Hi’ to my mom. You’re on speaker.’”
Tinkham, teammates say, has a pair of leopard-print shorts he likes to wear. As Butler trots toward the coaching box at third base, Tinkham says, “See you in a little bit.” He sings in the locker room, favoring Cher’s “Do You Believe in Life after Love.”
“He tries to serenade some people,” teammate Willie Schwanke said. “He likes a little retro pop. I wouldn’t say (his voice) is very appealing, but it’s not bad.”
On a team with 26 newcomers, Butler is happy to see Tinkham keep his teammates loose and playing hard. When a team’s best hitter is on board with the coaching staff, it makes a difficult season a little more bearable.
“He plays the game very loose and doesn’t really feel pressure,” Butler said. “He thinks with the game, kind of a coach on the field.”
WSU’s record isn’t enjoyable for Tinkham, who, like most Shockers, is used to winning at his previous schools.
He hears criticism of WSU coaches from the stands and on social media and considers it unfair. Butler, in his mind, is a hard-working and caring coach. When the insomnia peaked and Tinkham battled a homesick spell in October, Butler allowed him to return to California and miss the Halloween scrimmage.
Butler invited Tinkham, and others, to his house for dinner last fall. Tinkham brought Butler’s wife, Melissa, a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers.
If the Shockers are relaxed and playing hard, Tinkham says, it’s because the coaches create that atmosphere even during a losing streak.
“I want to win so bad for that guy,” Tinkham said. “It’s hard to sit here and listen to some of the things, because it’s not fair to him. It’s on us as players to get the job done. You can tell he cares. He puts us before himself.”
Wichita State at Bradley
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Where: Dozer Park, Peoria, Ill.
Records: WSU 13-23, 5-4 MVC; BU 23-9, 3-3
Pitchers: WSU, RH Isaac Anderson (3-5, 3.79 ERA); BU, RH Elliot Ashbeck (7-2, 3.10)
Radio: KNSS, 1330-AM
Wichita State at Bradley scouting report
▪ Series: 6 p.m., Friday; 1 p.m., Saturday; noon, Sunday
▪ Pitchers: WSU — RH Isaac Anderson (3-5, 3.79 ERA), RH Chase Williams (1-2, 7.58), TBA; BU — RH Elliot Ashbeck (7-2, 3.10), RH Steve Adkins (4-2, 3.40), LH Brent Strong (4-2, 5.17)
▪ WSU is going with experience in the rotation this weekend after Williams showed good signs last weekend. He struck out three and walked two, allowing an unearned run, in 2 2/3 innings against Illinois State in relief. “He’s starting to get some confidence,” WSU coach Todd Butler said. “He has very good stuff. He just has to be in the zone to give us a chance.” Anderson’s pitch count should go up from around 90 to around 110 in his fourth start since missing two weeks with tendinitis. Junior Sam Hilliard is the likely Sunday starter, unless he is needed out of the bullpen earlier in the series.
▪ The Shockers are 4-11 on the road, but 3-0 in MVC road games after sweeping Southern Illinois. They are hitting .234 with a 5.65 ERA in road games.
▪ 1B Ryan Tinkham, hitting .486 over the past 10 games, isn’t the only Shocker heating up at the plate. OF Daniel Kihle is hitting .409 and Hilliard .375 in that span. Hilliard had a 10-game hitting streak snapped at Kansas State on Tuesday, a streak in which he hit .425 with 17 RBIs, two doubles and two home runs.
▪ WSU has won 19 straight games against Bradley, last losing in 2007 in Peoria. The Braves last won a series against WSU in 2003 in Peoria, winning three of four games.
▪ Bradley’s power ranking (RPI) jumped four spots to No. 9 after Tuesday’s 5-4 win over No. 19 (RPI) Iowa and Wednesday’s win over Northern Illinois. Bradley has won three straight games after losing a weekend series at Dallas Baptist 2-1. They rank third in the MVC with a 4.28 ERA.
▪ Bradley CF Isaac Smith is hitting .367 with four home runs. 2B Chris Godinez and LF Evan Gruener both have five home runs and Godinez leads the team with a .549 slugging percentage. RP Matt Dennis has seven saves and a 1.98 ERA with 24 strikeouts and 11 walks in 27 1/3 innings.
▪ Game times for Saturday (1 p.m.) and Sunday (noon) are an hour earlier than usual because of a minor-league game at Dozer Park each night.