It wasn’t hard for Wichita State baseball coach Todd Butler to figure out where his team needed to improve after its season-opening weekend in Phoenix, where the Shockers lost three of four games, committed 12 errors, walked 27 batters and allowed 12 unearned runs.
After added focus on defense and throwing strikes, WSU responded by splitting games against Stephen F. Austin and Texas-Arlington last weekend with four-game totals of five errors, 13 walks and one unearned run.
It was a step forward for WSU (3-5) and Butler wants the Shockers to take another step on Friday in a home-opening doubleheader against Creighton (5-1) at Eck Stadium. Game 1 is slated for 1 p.m. with Game 2 scheduled for 4:30 p.m. If weather permits, the teams will finish the series on Saturday at 2 p.m.
“We emphasized that we needed to start catching and throwing better,” Butler said. “I told the guys that’s the first thing you learn as a kid, throw and catch with your dad. This is what you’ve been doing since you were 4 years old. We’re good enough to defend the field, so we just had to work on getting in better position. We practice on turf and some of our guys had problems fielding the ball in dirt, but there’s no excuse. We made that point to them and they responded this past week.”
Butler was troubled that eight of the 12 errors committed in the season-opening weekend were committed by infielders. He had gambled by moving Luke Ritter from second to third base and Alex Jackson from the outfield to second base to start the season to try to get the best bats in the lineup.
Those early-season issues were never more evident than a 5-4 loss to then-No. 12 Stanford. The Shockers held a 3-1 lead early, but pitcher Ryan Stuempfig started the third inning with two walks and a balk. In the seventh inning with the score tied 4-4, a WSU outfielder dived for a line drive and missed, resulting in a lead-off triple for what would become the winning run.
But after that opening weekend, Butler decided to move Ritter back to his natural spot at second, Jackson back to left field and sophomore Paxton Wallace from the outfield back to his natural position at third base. The early results have been positive.
“We just played such poor defense and we made some miscues in the outfield,” Butter said. “But we made some moves and they’ve really helped us defensively. The guys responded and I saw a lot of positives. We’re getting better defensively and I think we’re a better defensive team now because of it.”
Offensively, WSU has been led by three seniors. After leading the Shockers in hitting last season, Ritter is off to a tremendous start to his senior season. He leads the team again in batting average (.452), runs (10), hits (14), home runs (2), RBIs (9) and walks (7). Shortstop Jordan Boyer is also off to a fast start with a .414 average, while first baseman Mason O’Brien is hitting .400 with four doubles, a home run and five RBIs.
Sophomore Liam Eddy has been a bright spot on the pitching staff. He delivered five-plus innings of relief against Stanford allowing just one earned run, then earned the win over Stephen F. Austin after allowing two earned runs in seven innings. Freshman left-hander Cal Carver has also made three relief appearances spanning seven innings without allowing an earned run yet this season.
After opening the season with eight straight opponents with a better RPI, WSU (RPI of 158) will play Creighton (53) in a series, Oklahoma State (34) in a mid-week game and travel to Texas Tech (1) for a series in the next two weeks.
“I think it’s a good thing going and playing good teams like Pepperdine and Stanford because it wakes guys up,” Butler said. “You learn you need to improve quickly and playing really good competition and seeing very good teams early I think is going to be a good experience for this team.”
Creighton at Wichita State baseball
Records: Creighton 5-1, WSU 3-5
When: Friday doubleheader, 1 and 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 2 p.m.
Where: Eck Stadium, Wichita
Radio: KNSS, 98.7-FM