Wichita State pitching coach Brent Kemnitz considers himself a brain coach. Give him a decent arm and a decent attitude, and he can boost a pitcher's confidence into above-average production.
So it's troubling for him to see his bullpen struggle, frustration doubled by the fact many of the problems appear to be mental.
"We're mind-boggled," reliever Chance Sossamon said. "He wants us to get all that negative stuff out of our head. Start new. And then go out there and do the things we need to be doing."
The Shockers (21-11, 7-2 Missouri Valley Conference) need the bullpen to right itself quickly. They play at Indiana State (21-9, 3-3) this weekend, the first of three straight MVC series on the road. With starter Charlie Lowell out with a strained forearm, or worse, for an undetermined period, the bullpen is needed more than ever.
"It's time for them to start doing the job consistently," Kemnitz said.
The problems started in December, when Kemnitz learned sophomore lefty Brian Flynn would be academically ineligible. Flynn was scheduled to move from starting to relieving, where he thrived in late in 2009. Kemnitz believed he had enough depth to make it work, even without Flynn. Instead, almost every pitcher has struggled and the bullpen can't be counted on to hold leads or keep games close. Logan Hoch's 3.77 ERA is tops in the bullpen, but opponents are hitting .327 against him with 11 walks to six strikeouts.
"It's been very inconsistent," Kemnitz said. "It's been very frustrating."
The past two games provided a microcosm of the frustrations. Neither starter Josh Smith, Lowell's sub, nor the bullpen could hold leads of 3-0 and 5-4 on Sunday in a 9-5 loss to Southern Illinois. On Tuesday, Nebraska clubbed six pitchers in a 14-0 win.
"I know it's mental," WSU coach Gene Stephenson said. "That's the most disturbing part — because you've got to heal the mental."
Relievers Grant Muncrief and Hoch, both recovering from surgery, are healthy and throwing well in practice. Tyler Fleming, a third reliever on the mend from surgery, is trying a new sidearm motion in a last-ditch attempt to help.
Muncrief and Hoch threw in Wednesday's scrimmage and looked sharp. Hoch will try to use a slider more often.
"Their stuff is just as good," Kemnitz said. "You've got to get past the mental block."
Coaches are using the bullpen with an eye toward late May. The Shockers, barring a long hot streak, will likely need to win the MVC Tournament to make an NCAA Regional. They don't want to bury pitchers who might help them during the five-day tournament. For now, they will try to put the relievers in good situations, such as when Muncrief entered the game on Sunday with a one-run lead to start the sixth inning.
However, the coaches can only have so much patience.
This weekend, Sossamon (10.20 ERA) and Cobey Guy (4.26) worked themselves toward the top of the bullpen list with better performances. Freshmen T. J. McGreevy (8.10, three saves) and Tobin Mateychick (4.79), both saved for mid-week starts much of the season, will pitch out of the bullpen. Mateychick provided the lone positive out of the loss at Nebraska when he went 2 1/3 innings and allowed one hit and struck out three.
"We'll worry about (Tuesday's game) later," Kemnitz said.
Sossamon, a sophomore, may be the reliever closest to finding the top of his game. He pitched in Sunday's loss to SIU and struck out four of the nine batters faced. He also gave up a solo home run and a walk. In his past two outings, he has six strikeouts, one walk and allowed one hit.
In those games, Sossamon threw his fastball to the right spots and gained confidence in his curveball. Kemnitz believes he is most effective when he doesn't try to throw too hard.
"He wants me to stay within myself," Sossamon said. "He doesn't want me to go out there and try to muscle up and try to throw fastballs by guys. My game is spotting up and throwing my (curve) for a strike."