Twenty-one Wichita State pitchers earned some level of freshman All-American honors, a fact pitching coach Brent Kemnitz uses to provide role models for his current rookies.
Most, if not all, of those 21 followed an orderly progression to prominence. Some, such as Darren Dreifort or Mike Pelfrey, came in with big expectations and met them. Some, such as Kennie Steenstra, proved themselves in the bullpen before graduating to the starting rotation.
Shockers freshmen Jeb Bargfeldt and Tyler Jones are working through a different set of circumstances as they prepare for their starts this weekend against Illinois State (14-15, 1-5 Missouri Valley Conference). WSU (13-19, 5-1) will try to remain in first place in the MVC, knowing that after this weekend it will finish conference play with nine of its final 12 games on the road.
Bargfeldt, originally seen as a reliever, will make his sixth start of the season on Friday. Jones started the season as WSU’s mid-week starter and will make his second Missouri Valley Conference start on Sunday.
“As a freshman you just kind of hope to help the team in any way, whether a big or small role,” Bargfeldt said. “Obviously, that’s changed.”
When WSU coach Todd Butler planned his rotation in February, he counted on returner Sam Tewes, a Freshman All-American last season, and several junior transfers to carry most of the innings. Now Tewes and Willie Schwanke are out for the season with injuries and Isaac Anderson is back after missing two weekend starts with tendinitis.
That puts Bargfeldt and Jones in demand and without a net. They’re not experienced, but neither is anybody else on the pitching staff. Tewes, out with a shoulder injury, was the only healthy returner who started a game for WSU last season.
“Sam Tewes was our experience, and he’s hurt,” Kemnitz said. “Most years, its seven, eight, nine guys and they’re your pillars. The young guys can follow their lead. This year, there’s no experience.”
Bargfeldt, a lefty from Owasso, Okla., lasted five or more innings in four straight starts and is coming off a solid effort against Indiana State last weekend. He struck out five, matching his high, and allowed seven hits and two earned runs in five innings. Jones, from Andale, hasn’t made it out of the fourth inning since he threw a season-high five innings against Western Illinois on March 17.
Regardless of their youth, WSU needs them to eat innings and keep the Shockers in games. Both know the history of the freshmen All-Americans. Both know that coaches consider fall baseball the time for freshman adjustments and spring is the time to produce.
“Coming in as a freshman, I didn’t really know what my role would be,” Jones said. “You get to the weekend, and you’ve got conference games that mean a lot to the team and the program. You’ve got to win those games.”
Butler is optimistic that WSU is through the roughest part of its season and the strong start to the MVC schedule and Tuesday’s competitive loss at Texas are good signs. To finish strong and set itself up for the MVC Tournament, Bargfeldt and Jones must throw well against MVC competition.
“There’s a lot more riding on the weekends,” Bargfeldt said. “You have to compete a lot more on the weekends. These are the ones that count.”
Bargfeldt will open the series for a second straight weekend, meaning he faces the opposing team’s best pitcher in a game that is often seen as the highlight of the weekend. Not all freshmen are ready for that kind of role. While circumstances — injuries to Tewes then Schwanke — forced it on him, Bargfeldt handled it well last weekend.
“The outside interference doesn’t seem to affect him,” Butler said. “He’s locked into the game and competing. I told him in the fall that I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re a weekend starter by the end of the season. His makeup is really good.”
Bargfeldt throws 84-87 mph with a changeup and a good breaking ball. Jones improved his velocity to the upper 80s and the low 90s and is gaining confidence in his secondary pitches, especially his changeup. He went through the early part of the season relying on his fastball and slider. Then assistant coach Brian Walker gave him a strong push to throw the neglected changeup.
“Coach Walker told me I was going to be throwing it in a game, and I could keep throwing it for a ball or figure it out,” Jones said. “’Throw it for a strike and you’ll help yourself out.’”
With two freshmen in the rotation, that kind of learning curve is bound to be part of the season.
“The spotlight is a little brighter than you want it to be and you’re matching up against guys that are probably more experienced,” Kemnitz said. “From our end, we say we expect you to go out and perform.”
Illinois State at Wichita State
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Eck Stadium
Records: ISU 14-15, 1-5 MVC; WSU 13-19, 5-1
Pitchers: ISU, LH Will Headean (3-2, 4.25 ERA); WSU, LH Jeb Bargfeldt (2-1, 3.71)
Radio: KNSS, 1330-AM