Eric Wedge’s first eight months as Wichita State baseball coach leaned heavily on his presence, his words, his reputation as the leader of the 1989 NCAA champions and a former major-league player and manager.
“Everything he says hits hard,” catcher Ross Cadena said. “It’s emotional, comes from deep down.”
Wedge talked to his players about focus and responsibility, demanding that they hit the target in the chest with throws and keep the locker room clean. He talked to boosters, civic groups and the media about topics ranging from pace of play to Eck Stadium’s new artificial turf, weight room and clubhouse.
— Wichita State Baseball (@GoShockersBSB) February 12, 2020
On Thursday, the Shockers took a 615-mile bus ride to Natchitoches, La., where they open the season against Northwestern State on Friday. That is a nine-hour signal that it is time to turn words into actions for real.
The Shockers, 28-31 last year, are picked last in the American Athletic Conference. This is not a season for lofty goals. It is a season for improvement, setting a way of doing business that will, in the best cases, produce winning baseball both in 2020 and beyond.
On Friday, Wedge will gather the Shockers at some point at Brown-Stroud Field. While he said he hasn’t planned his final words before the games count, he knows the message. He says those words will call back his message from spring training as manager of the Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners and his message from fall practice with the Shockers.
“I know that I’m big on going out there and enjoying the ride, enjoy the process,” he said. “Don’t worry about the results. Focus on what you need to do, do your job. Have some fun with it. Can’t stress that enough.”
Winning, of course, is fun. That is where Wedge’s talks and practices over the past six months mean something. At a recent practice, he reminded the Shockers of his goals while they worked on infield defense.
“Throw it to the body.”
“What were you thinking about – repeat it every day.”
“Stay with it. Tough hop. Athletic. I like it.”
Wedge wants the Shockers to play a crisp, quick brand of baseball, which means good defense and throwing strikes. Nothing drags down performance more than sloppy defense and walks. The Shockers say they are improved in both areas. Last season, they walked an average of 5.2 batters per nine innings, the second-worst rate in the conference.
“I definitely saw a big improvement,” senior pitcher Preston Snavely said. “We walked very minimal this fall, whereas (last) spring, we were walking people left and right. It comes down to our throwing program, where our misses need to be not two feet, but two inches Guys really bought in every day to hounding themselves to throw it over the plate, throw it in the box, like Coach says.”
Last season’s fielding percentage of .965 tied for seventh in the nine-team conference. Shocker coaches emphasize the basics of baseball in every practice – starting with playing catch the right way with an accurate throw and expanding into focus and footwork.
Most important, Cadena said, is that mistakes are fixed immediately so that they don’t develop into bad habits that can ruin a game, a weekend or a season. The Shockers call that stacking good moments on top of one another and stacking good practices on top of those moments.
“When someone slips up in practice, the captains address it and therefore there’s never a lack of focus in practice,” Cadena said. “We’re doing a better job now than we ever have. We address it right there so it does not continue on throughout practice and practice gets gradually worse.”
Snavely will start Sunday’s series finale. Newcomer Jake Hamilton, a transfer from Rose State College, starts on Friday. Junior Liam Eddy is the Saturday starter.
Hamilton, a junior, led the NJCAA with 137 strikeouts and an average of 16.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Hamilton rested his arm during the fall, so fans did not get a chance to see him in scrimmages.
“He’s playing a little bit of catchup this spring,” Wedge said. “Very heady, smart. Serious about his routine and how important this is to him. He has a lot of life on the baseball.”
The Shockers open their home schedule on Feb. 21 against Texas Southern. All three games of the series are on Cox Yurview Kansas.