There's a little game inside a game going on with the Wichita State baseball team, and it's a dandy.
Teammates Ryan Jones and Preston Springer decided a while back that they were going to chase the Shockers' RBI lead, battling one another in a no-holds-barred competition between middle-of-the-order hitters.
It's the job of both hitters to be run producers, and they take their jobs seriously. Friends off the field, these two are going at one another tooth and nail in their battle for RBI supremacy.
It's probably not a coincidence that with Jones and Springer in full combat mode, the Shockers are playing good baseball and scoring a lot of runs, as they did Saturday in beating Southern Illinois 9-1 at Eck Stadium.
Springer came up with the bases loaded a couple of times and produced two-run singles.
Jones had a two-run homer in the second inning.
It takes a calculator to add up the RBIs from this pair over the past couple of weeks.
We'll start with Springer, who has driven in 16 runs in the past six games to increase his RBI total to 35.
But he still trails Jones, a senior outfielder who has knocked in 13 runs in the past seven games and has 40 for the season.
That's 75 RBIs in 30 games for the guys who usually hit 3-4 in the Wichita State lineup. No other Shocker player has driven in more than 18.
"We're trying to have some fun and get a job done every time we step to the plate,'' said Springer, a junior college transfer from Odessa, Texas, who has been everything the Shockers thought he would be.
Jones, frankly, doesn't know how long he can hold off Springer, a left-handed hitting junior with fire in the barrel of his bat.
"The ball just sounds a little bit different coming off his bat,'' Jones said of Springer. "I love getting on first base ahead of him, except I have to really watch so I don't take one off the chest when he hits it. There's just a different sound when he hits the ball.''
Jones has taken to a senior leadership role well, recovering nicely from a frustrating junior season in 2009 in which his batting average plummeted from .326 to .277. His 3-for-3 day Saturday lifted his average to .318. Jones is popping the ball more consistently than he did last season, when the pressure of a bigger offensive role seemed to burden him.
Jones, with 15 extra-base hits so far this season, has a .570 slugging percentage compared to .427 a season ago.
Springer went 2 for 4 Saturday against the Salukis and his .352 average is tied with Cody Lassley's for the team best. Springer is slugging at a .600 clip.
"I have all the confidence in the world for the guys hitting in front of me and behind me,'' Springer said. "This is a game everybody can build on.''
The Shockers have rebounded to win five straight after a 5-8 stretch from March 13 through April 2. In those eight losses, Wichita State batted .185 with 12 extra-base hits.
Jones and Springer were a combined 12 of 63 (.190) in those losses with six RBIs.
Offense wasn't the only problem in those defeats, most of which were lopsided. The Shockers' pitching staff had a 6.98 ERA and the defense, if you can call it that, made 28 errors. In eight games.
For the time being, at least, the Shockers have found level ground. And the hitting of Jones and Springer is one of the major reasons. Since they agreed to chase the team's RBI leadership their production has shot up and the team's offense has ignited.
Pitching is better, too. Right-hander Tim Kelley turned in his best performance in nearly a month, allowing one run in seven innings. Kelly went into the game with an 8.81 ERA in his previous four games, when he allowed 30 hits in 15 1/3 innings.
Cobey Guy, a right-hander, was a stabilizer out of the bullpen again, cleanup up the last two innings. Guy, for whom the Shockers had high hopes after recruiting him out of Arkansas-Fort Smith Community College last year, is finally healthy and productive. And he has provided, at least for now, some reliability in a shaky bullpen, which went into Saturday's game with a collective 6.01 ERA.
Consider the Shockers, for now at least, as a team that is finding its footing. It's still perilous, obviously, because there's still no way to explain how they played so poorly in a long stretch of games. Apprehension remains, but this is a team that has scored 86 runs in its past eight games.
I'm sure Wichita State coach Gene Stephenson is all for the RBI competition between Jones and Springer. I'm just as sure he doesn't care who wins.