Wichita State Shockers

Wichita State builds team around speed

There are a lot of do-overs allowed in Wichita State baseball practices for players running the bases.

Get thrown out trying to stretch a hit into a double? Go back to first. Safe at second? You're still going back to first. Get thrown out trying to steal? That's OK — try again.

The Shockers are trying to use their speed to compensate for a lack of power. With the NCAA mandating new bats with a smaller sweet spot and less pop, all of college baseball is adapting.

Home runs figure to drop. Games should be shorter. Pitchers may be able to work the inside of the plate without fear of giving up a cheap home run.

"There's not going to be as much pop," WSU shortstop Tyler Grimes said. "But I think it's going to be the same game. It's going to be more interesting to see which teams can play defense."

WSU, which opens the season Friday against Niagara at Eck Stadium, seems well-suited to change. Even with Johnny Coy and Preston Springer — both double-digit home run threats with the old bats — returning, the Shockers are built on speed. If, as expected, the game takes a turn toward running, the Shockers think they are ready to go.

"There's going to be a greater emphasis on small ball," WSU center fielder Kevin Hall said. "It fits my game, and really, I think it's going to benefit our team. Wichita State has always been a program with good pitching and good defense, and we have a considerable amount of speed. I think these bats are going to play to our advantage."

In practice, the coaches are working on the mental part of the adjustment. They want players to be confident and aggressive on the base paths. Coach Gene Stephenson's desire for his team to put pressure on the defense is elevated a notch.

"We need to be a team that, to a man, when you hit the ball and you think it's a base hit, that every ounce of energy you have is dedicated to getting that extra base," Stephenson said. "These are going to be critical for us to score, because you're not going to be able to score by home runs."

They want the Shockers to think second base, even on a groundball that bounces by an infielder. Get thrown out, and it's fine. The player learned something — and in a game the outfielder might bobble the ball. Coaches want everybody to be a base-stealer, which is why free passes are handed out in practice. Get thrown out, and you get another chance to take a lead and steal.

"We can really test our boundaries and see what we can and cannot do," Hall said. "We should be really efficient taking that extra bag."

The new bats, mandated largely for safety reasons, will perform more like wood bats.

"If you hit the ball hard, it's still going to go," Coy said. "We've just got to concentrate on making solid contact each and every at-bat. We've got no choice, so we're going to make the best of them."

WSU won't be bereft of power. Springer hit 11 home runs and 20 doubles last season as the designated hitter. Coy hit seven home runs and 13 doubles. Will they approach those numbers with the toned-down bats?

Doubtful, but not impossible. Hitters started using the new bats in the fall, so they're well into making adjustments to learn how to drive the ball.

"You're going to have to really square the ball up well to hit the ball out of the ballpark," Stephenson said. "There's not going to be any flukes."

Springer and Coy return as WSU's middle-of-the-order run producers. Stephenson is counting on big improvement from several players to fill in the lineup. Hall, who stole 20 bases in 2010, figures to hit lead off.

Grimes rebounded from a disappointing 2010 with a superb summer in the Alaska League. Left fielder Garrett Bayliff is another speedster. Junior catcher Chris O'Brien hit five home runs as a freshman before dropping to one last season.

WSU hit 64 home runs last season — its most since 2004. The power didn't help get the Shockers into an NCAA regional. WSU stayed home for the first time since 2001 after losing in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title game.

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