Wichita State baseball teams are often defined by pitching. Hitting grabs plenty of the glory over the past 35 seasons under coach Gene Stephenson.
Fielding? Even when WSU plays good defense, it is overshadowed by the higher-profile aspects of the game, or considered a by-product of good pitching. It would be a mistake to underestimate defense this season. It is WSU’s most consistent asset, more reliable than the offense and a huge help to a pitching staff that needs good fielders to gobble up groundballs and flyballs.
“This defense, just the way they go about their business, they take it workman-like,” senior pitcher Josh Smith said. “They don’t take pitches off. It’s nice to know that when you’re on the mound.”
The Shockers open play in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament today and reliable defense should be the norm at Hammons Field. Five MVC teams rank in the top 40 nationally, led by No. 1 Evansville’s .981 fielding percentage (36 errors in 52 games).
WSU is No. 38 (.974) and 16th nationally with 51 double plays, making it fair to wonder where the season goes without a top-notch defensive effort. The Shockers don’t always score big. Their weekend rotation sputtered along, until Kris Gardner took over a spot in mid-April and A.J. Ladwig returned in early May. Smith, Gardner and Ladwig aren’t big strikeout pitchers. A unreliable defense behind them courts disaster. They require sure-handed infielders and speedy outfielders, and WSU owns both.
Together, the Shockers are 10-4 in games started by those three since mid-April, helping turn a season that seemed destined for a .500 record into one that might end with an NCAA regional at-large position. WSU posted a fielding percentage over .970 five times previously under Stephenson, most recently in 2007. After it slipped to .961 and .962 the past two seasons, WSU made improving its defense a priority last fall. The Shockers gave up 117 unearned runs in 125 games in 2010 and 2011. This season, WSU allowed 43 in 58 games.
“Most of the practices were defined around defense,” shortstop Erik Harbutz said. “We wanted to make sure this team has great defense.”
The outfielders worked on throwing to the right bases to keep the double play in order. The infielders worked on getting to the right places to take the throws, a problem in recent seasons. The infielders took thousands of groundballs, some of them on their own time.
“Whatever you emphasize to these guys, their attention to it will be a little bit better,” assistant coach Jim Thomas said. “And the other part is, we’ve got good defensive players.”
The most significant improvement is on the infield, where Harbutz and second baseman Dayne Parker are the key figures. First baseman Casey Gillaspie, a freshman, improved dramatically from the fall with his footwork and ability to snag throws. Even numerous changes at third base haven’t damaged the defense too much. Freshman catcher Tyler Baker is agile and unafraid to throw behind runners.
Harbutz, who started the season at third, and Parker, who last played second in high school, always seem to be in the right spot, always take direct routes to the ball and rarely throw off line. Harbutz doesn’t throw rockets across the diamond like Dusty Coleman or Tyler Grimes did. Parker doesn’t play with the acrobatics of Kevin Hooper. The coaches and pitchers don’t mind.
“We’ve been more consistent making the routine plays,” coach Gene Stephenson said. “We may not make as many spectacular plays this year, but we make all the plays you should make.”