Gunnar Troutwine is putting together his best season at the plate his senior year as catcher for the Wichita State baseball team.
The Kansas City native is hitting a career-high .333 and is on pace to post career-highs in home runs (6) and runs batted in (27). On Tuesday, he provided the highlight of the season to this point for the Shockers (23-7) when he blasted a three-run home run with two outs in the ninth inning to complete a 10-7 comeback victory over Oklahoma State in Stillwater.
His coach and his teammates all believe there is a correlation to Troutwine's success: his decision to grow out a sprawling red beard for his senior season.
"The mask does not fit his face now because the beard hangs below," said WSU manager Todd Butler, who couldn't decide if Troutwine looked like more a like grizzled, minor-league catcher or a viking. "I think I'm loving it. He's playing well and he's playing confidently. I think the beard is giving him some personality."
Senior shortstop Trey Vickers, who leads the team in hitting with a .375 average, has been Troutwine's roommate for four years. He's convinced the beard has to stay now with Troutwine's success.
"It's given him a little confidence boost," Vickers said. "He feels pretty cool out there with the beard. I think it's given him a little character and it's clearly working out for him."
Troutwine says he has been growing the beard, which is now nearly a half-foot long, since last July.
The upkeep is worth it, as Troutwine says the beard has become part of his "persona."
"I've got some conditioner for it and sometimes I'll wax the mustache up if I'm feeling fancy," Troutwine said. "I'm just kind of letting it flow right now."
Troutwine has been in a flow his last 10 games, which he is hitting .441 (15 for 34) with 16 RBIs and four home runs.
It's been a welcome change after patellar tendinitis in his right knee limited Troutwine to 29 games last season and robbed him of his power (no home runs), as he finished hitting a career-low .224 as a junior.
"It was tough to go through that, where I couldn't really play to my full ability," Troutwine said. "I had to take some time off, so it feels really good now (playing well). A lot of hard works pays off, not just for me, but for this whole team."
"When you live with a guy for so long, you develop that kind of relationship where we're both going to speak the honest truth to each other," Vickers said. "Last year he was down for a little bit and he was injured and things weren't going his way, so I had to give him the positives. I had to make him focus on senior year, one last chance, and we had to go out with a bang."
The Shockers have certainly started the season with a bang, as they are ranked as high as No. 20, built a RPI ranking of No. 10, and swept Oklahoma State for the first time since 2010.
WSU hosts a crucial American series starting Friday against Connecticut (17-10-1), two teams that are both 3-3 in conference play. Due to expected chilly temperatures on Saturday, WSU will play a doubleheader on Friday with the first game starting at 3 p.m. and the second starting 45 minutes after the first. The series finale will be Sunday at 1 p.m.
"This is a big test for us," Butler said. "For the people who don't know about UConn, (Houston Astros') George Springer has come from there. They get all of the best players up there in the Northeast. They've got really good pitching and they've played some good opponents. It's getting to crunch time in this conference and we're excited to be playing at home."