Three keys for Wichita State baseball as the tournament begins

Wichita State second baseman Tanner Kirk is hitting .277 with five doubles in 14 MVC games.
Wichita State second baseman Tanner Kirk is hitting .277 with five doubles in 14 MVC games. The Wichita Eagle

1. Shockers hitters must be prepared to prop up the pitching staff.

In 2013, WSU lost its tournament opener and, after the initial screaming and disappointment, everybody realized it had enough pitching to recover. WSU won five straight games, shutting out Southern Illinois and Indiana State, and allowed 10 runs on its way to the tournament title.

This team can’t do that.

The Shockers need to stay in the winner’s bracket and until they get to six runs consider a lead precarious. While WSU pitching is improving, it will be a challenge to cover this week with quality arms unless things go almost perfectly. No Shockers starter has completed eight innings and only two (injured Willie Schwanke and Chase Williams) recorded an eighth-inning out.

Wednesday starter Isaac Anderson is capable of working deeper into the game. I expect Sam Hilliard to start Thursday, perhaps depending on the matchup, and he is capable. WSU will probably need one of those breakout performances to preserve a thin bullpen.

WSU hit .278 in MVC games, third in the conference. It hit 21 home runs, second behind Dallas Baptist, and its 23 steals rank first. The improvement of the bottom of the order in recent weeks makes it realistic for the Shockers to win some high-scoring games.

2. Keep playing defense.

In the past 20 games, the Shockers have three two-error games and eight without an error. That is an improved rate over the first two-thirds of the season and likely due to improvement by freshman shortstop Trey Vickers and the return of second baseman Tanner Kirk from injury.

WSU turned 23 double plays in its first 35 games. In the past 20, it turned 15.

WSU can’t afford much more than one error a game.

3. Win back some fans.

WSU baseball lost some of its fun since 2009 as the wins slowly leaked away. Weather is always a factor and it doesn’t help that Eck Stadium’s best seats are in the shade when it’s cool during much of the season.

Fans love brackets, however, and WSU can bring some reluctant fans back with a good week. Tournament momentum builds each day and people will notice if the Shockers string together wins.

Crowds matter to coach Todd Butler, who was spoiled with great atmosphere during his seasons at Arkansas. He frequently mentions attendance and would love to see big crowds this week. While the weather may not cooperate, three or four days of good baseball could spark some passion and help sell tickets for 2016.