Paul Suellentrop

Early returns tell WSU that hitting depth is close

Some years, it is difficult for Wichita State's baseball team to fill two batting orders for its fall scrimmage series.

This fall, coach Gene Stephenson might use a 10-man batting order to give everybody who needs to hit opportunities.

For a team starved for offense last spring, that's one of the hints the bats could be more potent in 2010. Early in the fall, WSU's hitting appears to be ahead of its pitching. The Shockers scored 20 runs on 32 hits in a public scrimmage last month and the trend continued.

"It's been a long time since we've scored runs like we're scoring now," Stephenson said. "We've add some offense. We've added a little bit of power."

Now is the time to throw in the usual caveats about practice. Some days, pitchers are prohibited from throwing breaking balls. We won't make any final judgments until the spring. For now, Stephenson is happy to see more line drives bouncing off the new turf at Eck Stadium.

Most of the Shockers who struggled through the spring are more experienced. The recruiting class added experienced hitters such as outfielder Travis Bennett, a transfer from Northern Iowa, and infielder Preston Springer, a junior-college transfer.

The Shockers had two players (Ryan Jones and switch-hitter Charlie O'Brien) capable of batting left-handed last spring. In 2010, Stephenson should be able to write in a balanced lineup. Newcomers Bennett, Springer, Garrett Bayliff and Erik Harbutz (a switch-hitter) bat lefty. Returners Kevin Hall and Tyler Grimes are learning to switch hit.

For Stephenson, it adds up to depth. The roster gives him options to smooth over injuries or slumps.

"It's the competition that makes it better," Stephenson said. "Everybody on this team knows there is no clear locked deal."

Weather permitting, WSU will scrimmage at 2 p.m. today. The best-of-7 series begins at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Stay on target _ WSU softball pitcher Kasha Kolb gave up more home runs (three) in her first game last spring than she did in four seasons (two) at Chelsea (Okla.) High.

"I was shocked," she said. "I didn't know what to say."

Kolb's freshman season provided more of those learning experiences. Dominant in high school, she struggled through ups and downs as WSU's No. 1 pitcher.

Coach Mike Perniciaro thinks she came through it a better pitcher and proved it this fall. Kolb throws a rise ball, a curveball and a screwball and is working on her changeup. Most of the improvement, however, is in her mind.

"She looks like a different kid out there now," he said. "Last year, there were some times if she didn't get a call from an umpire she would have some negative body language and let that affect her."

Kolb thinks about staying positive and staying in the present — catch phrases for shrugging off a problem and bearing down on the next pitch.

"You know you can do it physically," she said. "It's all about focusing."

Kolb's numbers look impressive after fall scrimmages against small schools and junior colleges. She compiled a 0.47 ERA in 19 1/3 innings with 44 strikeouts and four walks. She ended her fall by holding Emporia State to a bunt single and striking out 17 in seven innings Tuesday.

"My effort and work ethic is completely different," she said. "I know what to expect. And I know how to be mentally tougher this year."

Team training — Post-collegiate distance running can be difficult, as former Shocker Kellyn Johnson discovered.

Without a team and a coach, running is a lonely road. Johnson won't be solo much longer. In January, she will move to Flagstaff, Ariz., to train with McMillan Elite, a team sponsored by Adidas.

"I was looking for some way to continue running," Johnson said. "It's hard to stay motivated and do what you need to do."

McMillan doesn't pay its runners, but it does provide housing, travel, coaching and Adidas gear. Most runners get a part-time job to pay other bills. Johnson will live with three runners and train with a group of six women in Flagstaff's altitude of 7,000 feet.

"It sets you up to pursue running as a career," she said.

Johnson earned All-America honors at WSU in the indoor mile and outdoor 5,000 meters in 2009.

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