At his core, Wichita State baseball coach Todd Butler likes good pitching more than anything and this past month has been a revelation for the Shockers.
In the last three weeks of the regular season, the Wichita State pitching staff maintained a 3.56 earned-run average. It’s a small sample size, totaling 11 games and 96 innings, but WSU’s staff ERA in May is on pace with the best staff in the American Athletic Conference, a top-10 team in East Carolina.
“When you start to pitch, then things start to get exciting,” Butler said. “Pitching is No. 1 and always will be. Pitching is all I’ve ever wanted, all I’ve ever recruited. You need guys to pitch on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and then have a guy on the back end to close it out. We have a lot of young guys and they’ve been stepping up and competing and now we have some momentum.”
Wichita State will need that quality pitching when it opens up play in the double-elimination AAC Tournament on Tuesday, as the eighth-seeded Shockers (26-29) will play top-seeded and No. 7-ranked East Carolina (42-13) at approximately 11:30 a.m. The game will be live streamed on the American Digital Network’s Facebook page.
Butler will hand the ball to senior Clayton McGinness, who has been one of the best pitchers in the American the past month. In his last four starts, McGinness has allowed six earned runs in 30 innings. He’s lasted at least seven innings and allowed two or fewer earned runs in each start.
While WSU is throwing its ace, ECU is countering with its midweek starter, a left-hander in Alec Burleson (5-1, 3.18 ERA).
“He’s found the right focus that he needed to be successful,” WSU pitching coach Mike Pelfrey said of McGinness. “His command has been good and his confidence has gone through the roof with everything he throws. He’s snapping breaking balls and pounding the strike zone and the results are backing it up.”
Pelfrey wasn’t hired until January, a little more than a month before the regular season opened. Combined with the arrival of so many first-year arms, Wichita State’s pitching went through a feeling-out process on both sides. That led to an uneven performances for the majority of this season.
But not only has McGinness rounded into form, nearly every pitcher for the Shockers has.
“It’s a combination of a lot of guys starting to reach their potential and the communication between our pitching staff and coach Pelfrey has been phenomenal,” Butler said. “I truly believe there’s greatness in every player as long as they keep striving to improve every day, which is exhausting. It’s tough, but these guys have battled and continued to work at it and continued to get better. These guys are all in.”
Pelfrey added that the newcomers have embraced a “less is more” approach, instead of pressing and feeling like they have to make the perfect pitch every time out. They’ve become more comfortable sticking to what they succeed with and the confidence is beginning to snowball with all of the arms, in particular the starting pitching.
When he looks at the numbers, Pelfrey is pleased with the dramatic drop in ERA but also notes WSU is still handing out too many free passes. In the last 11 games, WSU gave up 4.9 walks per nine innings, slightly down from the 5.4 season average, but still too high for Pelfrey’s liking.
“If we eliminate the walks and free passes, I really do believe we can pitch with anybody,” Pelfrey said. “We have the arms. We’re capable, we just got to cut down on the walks.”
Butler has been impressed with how Pelfrey has called games and especially with the success he and the staff have had with the changeups. Butler estimates “we’ve thrown more changeups in the last month than we did all of last year” and notes that it’s turned into a go-to pitch for the Shockers.
Despite the pitching improvement the last 11 games, WSU’s record was 6-5 in those games, including a 2-1 loss at Connecticut and a 2-0 loss at South Florida. The offense proved itself capable in the first three months of the season, averaging 6.7 runs per game in the first 31 games.
The hope is the Shockers can find the timely hitting like they did in the ninth inning in Sunday’s 7-3, come-from-behind win at South Florida to lock up their place in this week’s tournament.
“This is why you work so hard all fall, all spring and you play 55 games to get to this point,” Butler said. “We know if we play well, then we will have a chance to win every game. If we don’t play well and we’re not accountable on the mound and in the field and putting together good at-bats, then we’re not going to stay in the tournament very long.
“But we are loose and this team is having fun right now. There’s no pressure on us, so we’re focused on going out and playing good baseball.”