Wichita State Shockers

Pinch hitters have to stay sharp for Wichita State

It's Friday night, more than 90 minutes after Wichita State's win over Creighton. Usually the only action in Eck Stadium at 11 p.m. is the blue-shirted cleaning crew sweeping and tidying.

On this night, however, a coach's dream unfolds. WSU freshmen infielders Josh Halbert and Dayne Parker take advantage of the weather to haul out a protective screen, baseballs and bats for an hour or so of extra batting practice.

That is the life of a pinch-hitter.

Most of your swings come in the anonymity of batting cages _ until it's the late innings of a close game and the Shockers need a hit. Coach Gene Stephenson stopped platooning players in late April, making at-bats rare and precious for reserve position players.

"We've stressed to them many times over. . . .that any of you who aren't in the starting lineup, you're one play away from playing," Stephenson said. "Those guys that are out there working extra, they will probably be in a position to succeed."

Halbert and Parker often come to the ballpark early to work on hitting. Sometimes they stay late and use the indoor batting cages. On Friday, it was too nice of a night to stay indoors. They set up the screen a few feet from home plate and took turns soft-tossing balls to each other. Every 20 minutes or so, they stopped to shag balls in the outfield and started over.

"We noticed that the lights had been on after games for quite some time," Halbert said. "It was fun, instead of being in the cage, so you can see where the ball goes, instead of hitting into a net. You've got to go pick the balls up, but it wasn't too bad."

Not every college student wants to spend Friday night in an empty stadium. Parker, from Roff, Okla., and Halbert, from Choctaw, Okla., found each other.

"We like to hit," Halbert said. "We want to get on the field more. To be able to get better and get on the field, you've got to put in the extra work."

A player can hit alone, but that's not nearly as satisfying as working with a friend. Halbert tells Parker to rotate his hips through the swing to generate more power. Parker gives Halbert outside pitches so he can work on hitting to all fields instead of pulling the ball.

"They can help you out, if they see something that you're doing wrong," Parker said. "If he wasn't there, I would just be going upstairs and hitting off a tee. You can only do so much off a tee."

Physical preparation is important for a pinch hitter During a game, it's a mental chore. Almost every Shocker played every inning during high school or junior college. Now the reserves must stay sharp until the late innings on the hope that Stephenson calls their number. If Stephenson looks through the dugout and sees a player who is drifting off, he looks elsewhere.

Halbert, a left-handed hitter, watches how pitchers attack left-handed starters Preston Springer and Don Lambert.

"About the first seven innings, I usually try to stay in the bullpen and keep stretched," catcher and outfielder Ryan Hege said. "I catch bullpens to keep my legs loose. It's very difficult. You usually get one at-bat to prove yourself, and you're usually going in in a big-time situation."

Stephenson first looks to match up with the pitcher. On Saturday, he went to Hege, a right-handed batter, in the eighth inning to face lefty reliever Mark Winkelman. Stephenson doesn't subscribe to hard and fast rules for his pinch hitters.

"Get on base," he said. "Or if runners are already in scoring position, focus on driving the run home. Focus on the pitcher, and how he's pitching people, or how he's likely to pitch you, and not be just swinging at the first pitch, or necessarily taking the first pitch. It depends on the situation."

The hitters unanimously think it's important to approach the at-bat aggressively. Late in the game, with the score close, they believe the pitcher is likely to throw fastballs early in the count to get ahead.

"Over the course of the year, you've got to learn how to be a pinch hitter," Halbert said. "You're not in there to take strikes. You're not in there to look at pitches. You go in there to get your pitch and you've got to drive it."

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