Wichita State Shockers

Wichita State's Chris O'Brien finds a groove

The count is one ball and two strikes on Chris O'Brien, who is about to display why he is hitting better than .400 by taking a walk.

Kansas State reliever Gerardo Esquivel throws two tempting pitches to O'Brien, both close enough to the strike zone that most hitters swing and ground into a double play. O'Brien lets them both go by and the umpire rules them low, despite protests from the Wildcats. The Wichita State crowd is relieved.

"They just kept going a little lower and lower," O'Brien said. "Some were real close. I wasn't too worried about it. You just have to take deep breaths and stay calm."

Ball four isn't close, and O'Brien jogs to first base to move the winning run to second. Teammate Tyler Grimes finishes off the 7-6 victory with an 11th-inning single and O'Brien's role in the rally is forgotten.

That's the way O'Brien's season is rolling along. Ever since he got to campus in the fall, every decision, every swing, every glance at a pitch seems to work out.

"He is a very good, patient, hitter," coach Gene Stephenson said. "That's the difference between him now and what he's ever been before. He is patient at the plate, and what has contributed to his patience is confidence. He knows the strike zone, and he knows he's going to be able to put the bat on the ball."

One of the problems — or opportunities — with playing baseball at Wichita State is that it's hard to do something people think is spectacular. When your predecessors are talents such as Joe Carter, Phil Stephenson, Pat Magness and Conor Gillaspie, most statistical mountains are long conquered.

O'Brien, a junior switch-hitter from Tulsa, is wrapping up a season that deserves its mention with the best. With the regular season done, he is hitting .412 with a .642 slugging percentage, 63 RBIs and nine home runs. He is the only Shocker starter with more walks (36) than strikeouts (15). His 24-game hitting streak ranks seventh in WSU history.

All of that is fairly routine as far as great WSU seasons — hitting .412 ranks 16th on the season list and a .642 slugging percentage doesn't make the top 25.

Factor in O'Brien's position and the new, less-lively bats and his numbers take on a different strength. He didn't pick an easy season to break out as an offensive star.

O'Brien caught 59 of 60 games, sitting out Tuesday's win over Kansas State with back tightness as a precautionary measure. In Oregon, he went through a marathon equal of the old days of Shocker baseball (his father, Charlie, caught all 87 games one season at WSU). He caught both games of a doubleheader to start the four-game series, then all 17 innings in a single game the next day.

His reward? An inning off at the end of the final game of the series.

"He wants to play," WSU volunteer coach Jeff Christy, a former catcher, said. "He was like 'Well, I've got one more nine-inning game, and then we've got two days off.'"

The bats, designed to perform more like wood with a smaller sweet spot, dropped team batting averages from .301 to .279 and cut home runs in half, NCAA research found in April.

Neither the heavy workload at baseball's most demanding position nor the pitcher-friendly bats bothered O'Brien. He prepared for the bats — and the professional draft in June — by using wood bats most of the fall. He swung wood during the summer in the Cape Cod League, then kept using it during practices and scrimmages at WSU. The adjustment to the less-potent bats wasn't much of an adjustment for O'Brien.

"There a lot of things you have to do different with a wood bat," he said. "You have to work your hands more, you have to use your lower half more — stuff you really don't have to do with the old bats."

O'Brien's first two seasons hinted at hidden production. As a freshman, he started at third base and hit .261 with five home runs. Last season, he started 21 games at catcher and four at third, hitting .291. Even as a freshman, he walked 37 times. But he couldn't supplant Cody Lassley as the starting catcher.

O'Brien's post-Lassley campaign didn't start well. The Cape Cod League is a place for baseball's top players to shine and attract pro scouts. O'Brien didn't do either.

"Summer is normally the time to work on stuff, but I really didn't work on stuff," he said. "I had just kind of a lackadaisical summer, and I felt like I didn't play great."

When O'Brien returned to Wichita, he went into overdrive to change things. He teamed up with sophomore outfielder Garrett Bayliff for batting practice from 9-11 p.m., six and seven nights a week. They tossed each other balls and critiqued each other's swings. Bayliff soaked up tips passed from Charlie, a former major-leaguer, to his son. O'Brien found the hitting groove that eluded him in previous seasons, helped by Bayliff's fresh eyes evaluating his mechanics.

"You only have so much time in practice to hit and we weren't getting enough hacks," Bayliff said. "I found a guy that had about the same work ethic as me. He knows it's his draft year and he knew he had to bust his... every day to get better."

O'Brien changed his stance, widening out and opening up, to keep his head and eyes from moving during his swing. It didn't take him long to gain confidence.

"When your head is in motion, it makes the ball look way harder than it is," O'Brien said. "It's hard enough to hit a baseball as it is. I cut down on my head movement, which makes me see the ball a lot longer. You can put better swings on it if you see it better."

Bayliff watched closely as O'Brien turned a wasted summer into a productive fall and spring. He will likely be rewarded next month in the draft, when scouts estimate he could be picked between rounds 10-15.

O'Brien is one of 36 semifinalists for the Dick Howser Trophy, a player of the year honor voted on by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. The award is presented June 21 in Omaha. Creighton outfielder Trever Adams and Evansville third baseman/pitcher Cody Fick are also on the list.

His hitting ability and gap power, from both sides of the plate, top his list of attributes. O'Brien isn't just an offensive star. Charlie O'Brien, a catcher with a sterling reputation for defense and calling pitches, says his son is more savvy about the game than he was in college. Chris O'Brien calls his own pitches and works hard at learning how pitchers operate best. His arm is accurate and adequate to control the running game, although it doesn't wow scouts with its power.

"I knew what I was capable of," Chris O'Brien said. "Once I was presented that opportunity at the beginning of the year, I knew I wasn't going to give it up."

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