Wichita Wingnuts

Pair of Wichita ballplayers hope summer success with Wingnuts launches comebacks

Goddard graduates Travis Banwart and Logan Watkins are both attempting to launch comebacks into affiliated baseball with the Wichita Wingnuts. Banwarts leads the league in ERA and Watkins leads the league in hits.
Goddard graduates Travis Banwart and Logan Watkins are both attempting to launch comebacks into affiliated baseball with the Wichita Wingnuts. Banwarts leads the league in ERA and Watkins leads the league in hits. The Wichita Eagle

Logan Watkins and Travis Banwart know what it’s like to play at the top levels of baseball.

And they both know what it’s like to have an injury derail a season, which has led the pair of Goddard graduates back to their hometown to play for the Wichita Wingnuts this summer with hopes of returning to where they once were.

Playing unaffiliated baseball isn’t what either wanted initially, but Watkins and Banwart are both making the most of the situation. Watkins is hitting .340 at the top of the lineup with 52 runs scored, 46 runs batted in, 31 extra-base hits and 22 stolen bases, while Banwart is 6-3 as a starter and leads the American Association in ERA at 2.46.

They are a big reason why the Wingnuts (50-32) are surging late in the season and are within a half-game of the Kansas City T-Bones for the final playoff spot. Wichita starts a 3-game series against the Chicago Dogs at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on Friday.

“I’m honestly surprised those guys haven’t gotten a call yet,” Wingnuts manager Brent Clevlen said. “I think it’s one of those things where it’s just timing. But they’re both a big part of what we do and we’re concentrated on making the playoffs and then hopefully after the season they’ll get the call when organizations start looking for next year.”

‘Talented enough to be there’

Watkins, a 2008 Goddard graduate, reached baseball’s pinnacle when he was promoted to the big-league level and played for the Chicago Cubs at the end of the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

He played in 58 MLB games total, hitting a home run, driving in six runs and scoring 12 with a .233 batting average. He even had a two-week stretch in 2014 where he went 13-for-31 (.419).

“I reached the top, the place I was working every day to get to,” Watkins said. “There was definitely some satisfaction with that, but my goal wasn’t just to get there, my goal was to stay there. I was playing as good of baseball as I’ve ever played in Chicago, so that tells me I’m talented enough to be there. But if you’re not a first-rounder, the window of opportunity to prove yourself is small.”

Then Watkins suffered a setback when he tore an Achilles’ tendon in spring training, which caused him to miss the entire 2015 season. He returned to Triple-A in 2016, then joined the Detroit Tigers’ organization but didn’t receive the playing time he was looking for.

That limited Watkins’ opportunities heading into this season and he reluctantly agreed to return to Wichita to play independent ball. He has been pleasantly surprised with the experience this summer.

“I never really thought about independent ball and I never realized the baseball here is actually pretty good,” Watkins said. “I’ve seen some pitchers I’ve faced before with major-league experience. So having success off the good players in this league lets me know that I can still do this.”

Watkins turns 29 in two weeks and hopes the success he’s had this summer will lead to another opportunity in affiliated baseball where he can chase his dream of returning to the big leagues.

“This summer has been good for me to get back into being an everyday guy and feeling that success again,” Watkins said. “I’m not sure what the future holds, but now I have some momentum and some stats to show teams that I can still play. Sometimes life throws things at you, but I have no regrets because I know I worked hard and I still think I have some years left in me.”

Still awaiting the call

At 32, Banwart realizes his dream of reaching the major leagues may not happen.

For years, Banwart was on the brink, compiling a 39-28 record with a 4.38 ERA in seven seasons in Triple-A in the Oakland Athletics’ and Cleveland Indians’ organizations. But for whatever reason, the 2004 Goddard graduate and former Wichita State pitcher never got the call.

“I’m honestly surprised he never made it to the big leagues,” Clevlen said. “I’m sure it was just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time because he’s got the stuff and he pitched well enough to get there. I still think he deserves another chance. He’s got the stuff to pitch in the majors.”

Banwart’s ability has been showcased this summer with the Wingnuts. He’s been the ace on staff and has struck out 89 hitters in 102.1 innings to go along with his league-best 2.46 ERA.

“I hope it shows teams I can still throw the baseball and get people out,” Banwart said. “I think for everyone still playing this game their goal is to get to the big leagues. I was pretty close there for awhile, but now that I’m older I realize that if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”

Banwart feels like he’s throwing as well as he ever has and can still help a team. He hopes the numbers he’s putting up this summer will help him get a shot with another team or perhaps a return to Korea, where he played in 2015 and 2016 and earned the biggest paychecks of his career.

But for now, Banwart is enjoying something this summer more important to him than that big-league call-up: time at home with his wife, April, and their 14-month child. A

“I get to be at home and sleep in my own bed and see my family for 50 out of 100 games,” Banwart said. “That’s probably been the best part about this summer is being at home with them. That’s something that’s never happened in my 12-year career.”