Wichita State baseball’s third act is a winner

Wichita State outfielder Mikel Mucha homered to beat Evansville on Friday. Mucha hit .447 to lead WSU during a 12-game period in which it went 9-3.
Wichita State outfielder Mikel Mucha homered to beat Evansville on Friday. Mucha hit .447 to lead WSU during a 12-game period in which it went 9-3. Wichita Eagle

By any post-1978 historical standard, Wichita State baseball is a significant disappointment this season. Nobody on the team is running from the expectation that a losing season and the middle of the Missouri Valley Conference is unacceptable.

But it’s also not fair to ignore what this team endured and the improvements made as it enters the final regular-season series, starting Thursday, at No. 11 Dallas Baptist. The season can be broken into three segments of distinct development. Happily for the Shockers and their fans, this third stage is the best. WSU is 9-3 in its last 12 games, all against teams in the top 100 of the RPI.

▪  From Feb. 13-March 22, WSU went 11-12 and ended that period on a five-game win streak.

For a team replacing seven starting position players, two of the three weekend starters and most of the bullpen, 11-12, while a rude welcome for the 26 newcomers, wasn’t a disaster. In retrospect, WSU wasn’t ready for a trip to Long Beach State, part of a seven-game losing streak.

During this stretch, WSU hit .274 and compiled a 4.11 ERA. With Willie Schwanke, Sam Tewes, Isaac Anderson and Jeb Bargfeldt, the Shockers were building a competitive rotation. Outfielder Mikel Mucha hit .343 in this stretch and outfielder Daniel Kihle hit .310 with nine steals.

▪  However, season-wrecking problems started toward the end of that five-game win streak. Tewes was already out with a shoulder injury, soon to be revealed as season-ending. Schwanke tore his lat muscle on March 20, also a season-ending injury. Anderson was about to miss two weeks with elbow tendonitis.

With the starting rotation wrecked, the Shockers slumped to a 3-14 record from March 24-April 21. They hit .247 and the ERA ballooned to 6.92, low-lighted by 106 walks in 145 2/3 innings.

The bright spots came from the offense, where Ryan Tinkham (.424 with six home runs) and Sam Hilliard (.344 with four home runs) began to give the team middle-of-the-order pop. Reliever John Hayes struck out 25 in 18 innings and established himself as WSU’s closer.

WSU’s five-game win streak ended against Oklahoma State and TCU routed the Shockers in a three-game series. At Eck Stadium, WSU blew an 11-6 lead and lost 13-12 to Kansas. It led Indiana State 8-4 entering the ninth inning and lost 12-8, preventing the Shockers from sweeping the series.

Throughout this period, WSU revamped its rotation. Tanner Kirk missed three weeks after taking a pitch to the face against TCU. He moved to second base when he returned, as freshman Trey Vickers took hold at shortstop.

▪  From April 24-May 11, the mid-season renovation paid off.

WSU went 9-3, all wins at home. It lost a three-game series at Missouri State. It swept New Mexico and Evansville and beat Oklahoma and Kansas State. Along the way, the Shockers began to resemble the team planned for in February. The rotation matured into a group capable of five or six competitive innings. Hayes continued to carry the bullpen. The offense continued to improve and picked up the shaky pitching staff several times.

Mucha hit .447 in the 12 games, delivering a game-winning single against New Mexico and a game-winning home run against Evansville. Hilliard hit .367 with four doubles and four triples, also turning in solid mid-week starts against K-State and ORU. Freshman catcher Gunnar Troutwine moved into the cleanup spot and hit .316 with seven walks and eight strikeouts. Vickers boosted the bottom of the order by hitting .333 and walking four times. Kirk’s return stabilized the defense and returned an experienced bat to the lower part of the order.

We’ll see if this surge wins back some fans next week at the MVC Tournament. Attendance slid for the past several seasons and fans can be excused for some skepticism. If WSU can finish 2015 strong, it can make a good case that things are moving in the right direction for 2016. Given a reasonable amount of stability and good health, the Shockers are playing .750 baseball for more than two weeks.