It's hard to build a baseball team around defense and pitching when the defense is sub-par.
In Wichita State's case, the pitching is also a problem, but that's a different story. The Shockers rank last in the Missouri Valley Conference in fielding with 51 errors and a .944 fielding percentage in 23 games.
"I thought this was a good defensive team, and we haven't played that way," WSU coach Gene Stephenson said.
The Shockers (15-8, 3-0 Missouri Valley Conference) travel to Evansville (12-13, 2-1) this weekend with Stephenson still searching for the right lineup combinations. The most surprising aspect of the defensive problems is that returners with solid resumes are struggling.
First baseman Clint McKeever committed two errors in 2009. He owns four this season. Shortstop Tyler Grimes has 10 this season, one fewer than in 2009. Second baseman Will Baez, a converted catcher, improved his defense late in 2009 but hasn't continued that momentum. He continues to struggle on routine plays. Catcher Cody Lassley isn't throwing the ball as accurately as Stephenson wants.
"I think everybody right now is trying too hard and not letting the game come to us," Grimes said. "We're being way too aggressive and we're not relaxing."
Sometime it's a lack of concentration on routine grounders. Sometimes it's a player forcing a throw when hanging onto the ball is a wiser move. And sometimes the Shockers make mistakes that aren't charged as errors, such as failing to cover a base or missing cutoff men.
"My biggest problem is trying to do things too fast," Baez said. "All you can do is learn from that and move on."
The result is an issue that makes games ugly and needs fixing quickly. WSU averages 2.2 errors and has committed multiple errors in nine of the past 11 games.
WSU's four-game losing streak started at Long Beach State in a 7-4 loss. The Shockers led 4-3 entering the eighth. A fielding error on McKeever started a four-run inning for Long Beach State. The next day, the Shockers committed five errors in a 7-3 loss. Tuesday, Kansas State scored all eight of its runs in innings in which WSU committed an error.
WSU's lineup changes contribute to the defensive problems. Freshman Johnny Coy pinch hit for McKeever at Kansas State and replaced him at first. He failed to execute a rundown after a pickoff play and later threw the ball into center after taking a cutoff throw, allowing a run to score. Coy has played little first base during his time at WSU. Wednesday, he homered twice against Tabor and played all nine innings at first.
"He's going to be just fine at first base," Stephenson said. "He's going to be a good target and athletic enough to field the ball."
The defense is just one issue for Stephenson to deal with this weekend. The Shockers are hitting .294, fifth in the MVC. Their 4.30 ERA ranks first, disguising a bullpen that struggles to hold leads. Those problems loom larger on the road, where WSU has lost seven straight games by an average score of 9.9-2.4. The Shockers are hitting .219 and have a 7.54 ERA in nine road games.
"I'm trying to figure out what's the best lineup that's going to give us an opportunity to score," Stephenson said. "We need to go to Evansville and play like the team I think we can be, with confidence. Play with some authority."