There is one negative to moving into Wichita State's conference pitching rotation. Josh Smith moves to the back of the line for picking uniforms.
When he starts on Tuesdays, he can go with his preferred all-white look. On the weekend, however, Friday starter Jordan Cooper grabs the white tops and pants. Tim Kelley favors black tops on Saturday.
"Mid-week, I have the choice of what I want," Smith said. "Tim's got his uniform. Coop's got his uniform. I kind of get last pick."
Smith is the likely choice to start on Sunday for injured Charlie Lowell, so he has time to decide. He can go gray, or he can wear WSU's older uniforms that Lowell usually chooses.
Style, of course, is secondary to Smith's ability to help keep WSU (19-9, 5-1 Missouri Valley Conference) atop the Valley standings. The Shockers play second-place Southern Illinois (15-14, 4-2) at Eck Stadium in a three-game series beginning tonight.
Lowell, a sophomore lefty, will miss his Sunday start, and perhaps more, with a strained forearm. He will rest until early next week, when he resumes light throwing to see how he feels.
"I'm hopeful it's not a huge deal," WSU pitching coach Brent Kemnitz said. "We got good news the first go-around. Hopefully, that's going to get him better and we'll have to play that by ear."
Smith, also a sophomore lefty, earned the right to replace Lowell with six starts — four lasting five or more innings — this season on his way to 3-2 record and a 4.08 ERA. In his previous two starts, Smith kept the Shockers in the game at Kansas State and at Oklahoma State.
"The game plan doesn't really change," Smith said. "Any type of team, you've got to go with the same type of mindset."
Smith endured his rough spots against both Kansas State and Oklahoma State. He didn't crack, recovering and persevering to keep the Shockers competitive. At K-State, he gave up three runs and seven hits in 5 2/3 innings, exiting trailing 3-0. At Oklahoma State on Tuesday, he gave up four earned runs and nine hits in 6 2/3 innings and left the mound with a 9-4 lead.
"He's been very consistent and he's gotten better each time out," Kemnitz said. He's throwing everything like he believes it."
On Tuesday, Smith did his best work in the middle innings after giving up two runs in the third. He retired the Cowboys, who lead the Big 12 in hitting, in order in the fourth and didn't allow another hit until the sixth. He is not overpowering — 17 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings — so location and pitch selection is important.
"After the third, I started working more fastballs in and working both sides of the plate, and I think that helped me settle in," Smith said. "Oklahoma State, they swung at the first pitch at lot, so I had to throw off-speed early in the counts and work off of that. Once I started working in, I jammed a couple guys and got some popups."
The eye test might say moving to the weekend is a step back from facing Big 12 teams on Tuesdays. Kelley, who started midweek games as a freshman, disagrees.
"A lot of people think it is, with the talent we see during the midweek," Kelley said. "All those weekend teams are gunning for us. I wouldn't say it's much easier."
Kelley will start Saturday trying to improve on two rocky MVC starts. He gave up 10 hits in both games against Bradley and Evansville. Against the Aces, he also walked five. Much like Smith, he's kept the Shockers in games and benefited from run support. He is 4-1 this season with a 4.84 ERA. Last season, he compiled a 2.86 ERA, but finished 5-4.
"I'd definitely like it go a little bit smoother," he said. "We're winning, so I can't complain about that."
A drop in strikeouts is the big difference between 2009 and 2010 for Kelley. As a sophomore, he averaged 7.3 strikeouts a game and struck out nine or more five times. This season, he averages 3.7 strikeouts and hasn't struck out more than four in any game.
In 2009, Kelley used his slider to great effect, often getting batters to chase in the dirt. This season, batters are ready for that approach.
"I think I've gotten away from the changeup too much," he said. "A second thing is that most of these conference teams have seen me before and they're going to have a scouting report. That's going to make things tougher."