Wichita State coach Todd Butler first recruited Sam Hilliard as a hitter. The Minnesota Twins drafted Hilliard as a pitcher last June. WSU’s plan was always to use him both ways.
Much like the Shockers, the plan endured some difficult times before taking hold.
In recent weeks, Hilliard grew into the two-way force envisioned and WSU is playing its best baseball of the season. The fourth-seeded Shockers (24-31) open the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament against fifth-seeded Illinois State (27-25) at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Eck Stadium.
“I can feel it from the whole team,” he said. “Everyone is super-pumped. Once we started hitting a rough patch, everyone was like ‘Maybe we’re going to have to grind a little bit and go through the hard times before we can get to the good times.’”
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WSU enters the MVC Tournament a much different team than the one that fell 12 games below .500 in late April. The Shockers won 10 of their past 15 games, with all five losses to nationally ranked teams on the road. Even a series loss at Dallas Baptist provided bright spots. The Shockers lost two one-run games to the 11th-ranked Patriots and won 10-3 on Saturday.
“We’re playing clean baseball,” outfielder Mikel Mucha said. “People are setting into their roles and I think that’s a major part. People know what they have to do at what points and they’re all buying into their roles.”
Hilliard’s role placed more demands on him than most. WSU needed him to hit in the middle of the order, play first base and start in the weekend rotation.
“Having two jobs to do for the team … that takes a lot of stress to do both and perform well,” Butler said. “A lot of times it’s kind of overwhelming for a two-way player.”
Hilliard started on the weekend through the first half of the season before moving to the bullpen for almost three weeks. He returned to starting duties against New Mexico and gave WSU strong starts in wins over Kansas State and Oral Roberts. His ERA over his past three starts is 3.63, lowering his season ERA to 6.09.
His offense powered up well before that and he is hitting a team-leading .337 with seven home runs and team-leading 47 RBI. He enters the MVC Tournament with a 10-game hitting streak and he earned MVC player of the week honors after going 7 for 18 in four games with seven RBI and three home runs.
“He’s really taken off as a hitter,” Butler said. “He’s really hitting the ball to the opposite field. Whether it’s a lefty or a righty, I feel pretty confident knowing he’s going to give us a competitive at-bat.”
Hilliard, who now plays right field when he isn’t pitching, rounded into a more complete hitter when he began handling left-handers more effectively. He adjusted his approach to give himself more time to see the ball and deal with off-speed pitches.
“Coach Butler wouldn’t have me in the lineup sometimes when we faced lefties, and I proved to him that I could hit lefties,” he said. “I would have a problem pulling off the ball and now I’m trying to keep my front shoulder in there and have extension across the plate. It was a fix I made about a month, month-and-a-half ago.”
The Shockers will start Isaac Anderson in Wednesday’s opener. Thursday’s starter will depend on the opponent and the circumstances, with Hilliard a possibility based on the strength of his starts against Kansas State and Oral Roberts. He last 6 2/3 innings in both, limiting the Wildcats to four hits and two runs and ORU to six hits and three earned runs.
“We’ll take all the information from one day to the next,” Butler said. “Everyone has to be on call for each and every ball game.”
Softball Shockers honored — WSU’s Brittany Fortner, Melanie Jaegers and Cacy Williams earned spots on the MVC’s softball Scholar-Athlete team, all for a second season.
Pitcher Katie Malone received honorable mention.
Fortner carries a 3.6 grade-point average in accounting and was named NFCA All-Southeast Region as an outfielder. Jaegers, a catcher, compiled a 4.0 GPA in sports management graduate studies. Williams, a first baseman, has a 3.4 GPA in chemistry-biochemistry.
At Eck Stadium
No. 6 Evansville (29-22) vs. No. 3 Bradley (32-18), 9 a.m.
No. 7 Indiana St. (27-24) vs. No. 2 Dallas Baptist (41-11), 12:30 p.m.
No. 8 Southern Illinois (11-44) vs. No. 1 Missouri St. (41-10), 4 p.m.
No. 5 Illinois St. (27-25) at No. 4 Wichita St. (24-31), 7:30 p.m.
UE-BU loser vs. Ind. St.-DBU loser, 9 a.m.
SIU-MSU loser vs. Ill. St.-WSU loser, 12:30 p.m.
UE-BU winner vs. Ind. St.-DBU winner, 4 p.m.
SIU-MSU winner vs. Ill. St.-WSU winner, 7:30 p.m.
9 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 4 p.m., 7:30 p.m.
11:30 a.m. (if necessary), 3 p.m. (if necessary), 7 p.m.