Wichita State baseball players and coaches dodged heavy rain, some waiting in the Eck Stadium office, some taking their soaking, before getting on the bus Monday morning to start the 602-mile trip to Terre Haute, Ind.
There is a reasonable chance the Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year got on the bus. There is little doubt the MVC’s top freshman class took that drive across Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and into Indiana.
The sixth-seeded Shockers (21-35) open MVC Tournament play at 3 p.m. Wednesday against third-seeded Bradley (27-19) at Warn Field. While several teams use freshmen in key roles, no team relies on as many as Wichita State, especially in the lineup.
When MVC honors are announced on Tuesday afternoon, Shockers first baseman Greyson Jenista could become the first Freshman of the Year since pitcher Aaron Shafer in 2006 and the first position player since second baseman Damon Sublett, who also pitched, in 2005.
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Jenista is hitting .382 in MVC games, second in the conference, with 14 walks, six doubles and two home runs in 20 games. His on-base percentage of .478 ranks first. His top competition for Freshman of the Year is likely Dallas Baptist center fielder Jameson Hannah, who hit .338 in 18 MVC games with three doubles and two home runs. Illinois State shortstop Owen Miller is hitting .317 for the season and started all 52 games. Missouri State shortstop Jeremy Eierman is hitting .303 with an MVC-best 25 RBIs in conference games.
WSU coach Todd Butler nominated Jenista — who leads the team with a .327 batting average and a .436 on-base percentage for the season — for the honor. Third baseman Alex Bohm and outfielder Dayton Dugas entered the conversation.
“All three of those guys … they’ve all had fantastic years for freshmen,” Butler said. “They have a chance to be three of the better hitters around the country if they continue to work.”
Bohm is third in MVC-only batting average behind Evansville’s Boomer Synek (.383) and Jenista. Bohm is hitting .359 with six doubles and four home runs and a .641 slugging percentage, second in MVC-only play. Dugas ranks sixth in batting average (.347) and has seven doubles in conference games.
Second baseman Luke Ritter has started 42 games. Centerfielder Travis Young, a redshirt freshman from Derby, worked himself into a starting job over the past three weeks and is hitting .361 in Valley games, 11 of them starts.
“I was able to recruit those guys and follow those guys for two years, they were sophomores going into their junior years and we were able to get on those guys early,” Butler said. “That freshman group wasn’t a group that came in here and thought they were going to sit and watch. At the beginning, they had to sit and watch. Once they kind of got in the lineup, they kind of took over and did a very good job.”
Wichita State will start junior Zach Lewis on Wednesday against Bradley with sophomore lefty Cody Tyler scheduled for Thursday against either second-seeded Indiana State or seventh-seeded Missouri State. Lewis threw five innings against the Braves in late April and gave up four hits and one earned run. He struck out seven to match a season-high in a game WSU lost 8-4 after giving up four runs in the ninth inning.
Lewis threw six innings on Thursday in a 5-4 loss to top-seeded Dallas Baptist, allowing five hits and two earned runs. He has pitched in relief often this season and could be used again later in the tournament if the Shockers can survive into the later rounds.
“He can really bounce back,” Butler said. “He is a tough-minded guy and really pitched well the last time out.”
At Terre Haute, Ind.
No. 5 Evansville (27-25) vs. No. 4 Southern Illinois (30-23), 8 a.m.
No. 8 Illinois St. (17-35) vs. No. 1 Dallas Baptist (37-17), 11:30
No. 6 Wichita St. (21-35) vs. No. 3 Bradley (27-19), 3 p.m.
No. 7 Missouri St. (34-19) at No. 2 Indiana St. (34-19), 6:30
UE-SIU loser vs. Ill. St.-DBU loser, 8 a.m.
MSU-Ind. St. loser vs. WSU-BU loser, 11:30
UE-SIU winner vs. Ill. St.-DBU winner, 3 p.m.
MSU-Ind. St. winner vs. WSU-BU winner, 6:30
Losers bracket — 8 a.m., 11:30 a.m.
Winners bracket — 3 p.m., 6:30 p.m.
If necessary — 10 a.m., 2 p.m.
Championship — 6 p.m
▪ All games on ESPN3.com