Stephen F. Austin visited Eck Stadium in late March set up for failure against a pitcher with a good slider.
Wichita State’s Connor Lungwitz struck out 10 batters in six innings in his first college start. He allowed two hits and the Shockers won 10-2.
Nothing came quite so easily after that for Lungwitz.
“I threw a lot of sliders in that game, in any count,” he said. “Now there’s a scouting report out on you. That team had no idea — I hadn’t really pitched before that. Now you’ve got to be able to throw your fastball.”
The rest of his season mixed good and bad, highlighted by a solid 4 1/3 innings in a win over Kansas in May. He went 2-2 with a 7.58 ERA last season, struggling when hitters learned to deal with his slider. As fall practices near their finish, he feels better prepared to deal hitters adjusting to his breaking pitches. Coach Todd Butler agrees, listing Lungwitz as a candidate for the rotation.
Lungwitz, a sophomore from Maize High, is 14 months removed from surgery to clear out tissue in his right shoulder and working to pump up his velocity to previous levels. Butler said Lungwitz threw 86 to 90 mph in high school and is closing in on those numbers now. Time off before the spring may help restore some of the zip to his fastball. Early in fall practices, pitching coach Mike Steele restricted pitchers from throwing breaking pitches, limiting them to fastballs and change-ups to force them to improve accuracy.
“The hitters knew it, so you really had to hit your spots,” Lungwitz said. “I didn’t have a breaking ball to bail me out.”
Lungwitz leads WSU with 20 strikeouts in 21 innings, with five walks, this fall. In the summer, he struck out 41 and walked five in eight appearances for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots in the Alaska Baseball League.
“He has all the weapons to be a successful starter,” Butler said. “He has such tilt and downhill (motion) for his size, I think that’s a huge advantage. Plus, he’s smart, a very cerebral pitcher. He’s really improving his fielding, his pickoffs, the other parts of the game.”
Lungwitz credits the practice routine installed by Steele with pushing his progress. WSU spent the first month of the fall workouts lifting weights and doing conditioning drills. When practices started, pitchers perform fielding drills and work on signs and throwing programs on their own.
“You’ve got pretty much all that done before the start of practice,” Lungwitz said. “We’ve had a different sense of work ethic as pitchers, I’d say, and motivation. You’ve thrown so many bullpens, you’ve gone over the signs a million times. You’re not thinking about much, other than executing this pitch, and that makes it a lot easier on a pitcher.”
The Shockers begin their best-of-3 scrimmage series at 6 p.m. Thursday at Eck Stadium. The series should provide an opportunity to highlight improved pitching depth after two injury-filled seasons. Willie Schwanke and Zach Lewis will start Thursday. At 6 p.m. Friday, Lungwitz and newcomer Ben Hecht will start. Saturday’s 11 a.m. finale will pit Cody Tyler against Keylan Killgore.
Schwanke and Lewis, both seniors, will end the fall the leaders for the weekend rotation with several others in the mix.
▪ Pitcher Codi Heuer is shut down for the remainder of the fall due to elbow tendonitis. Catcher Noah Croft, who had shoulder surgery and redshirted in 2016, is not cleared to throw until November.
▪ Sophomore infielder Luke Ritter leads WSU with a .409 batting average in scrimmages. Sophomore outfielder Dayton Dugas has five home runs.
▪ Sophomore Greyson Jenista, who played first base and outfield last season, is finding a home in right field. That puts sophomore Josh DeBacker at first.
“DeBacker at first base is a great athlete there,” Butler said. “Left-handed thrower, little bit easier on tag plays. You know what you’re getting with DeBacker.”