Kansas State baseball coach Brad Hill refuses to look at the big picture.
He didn’t do it when the Wildcats started 1-7, and he didn’t to do it when they responded with 17 victories in their next 20 games.
A fitting symbol of his here-and-now focus came following a 10-0 victory over Kansas on Friday. When it was over, Hill was asked to describe what the victory meant to his team.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Hill said. “We just keep playing them one at a time.”
That steadfast approach has been useful this season, a 31-game stretch filled with ups, downs, expectations and injuries. A year that began with unparalleled excitement is at a crossroads. An 18-13 record won’t satisfy anyone, especially veteran players like Ross Kivett and Shane Conlon, who stayed in school with hopes of making it to the College World Series.
Nearly half the season remains, and K-State baseball can go anywhere from here.
“The best word for us is inconsistency,” Hill said. “We have shown flashes of not being very good. We have shown some flashes of being pretty competitive and going in the direction we want to go. But now can we sustain it for more than a couple games at a time? That has been our nemesis.”
Indeed, K-State is a difficult team to define.
When they play their best, they resemble the group that won a Big 12 championship and advanced to a Super Regional last year. They have won five games by shutout, and they are 11-2 at home. Levi MaVorhis, Jared Moore and Nate Griep give them a strong pitching rotation. And Tanner DeVinny has added power to an offense that already featured Kivett and Conlon, two of the Big 12’s top returning hitters.
The problem is that those positives haven’t always translated into victories. It took a month to recover from a 1-7 start. It may take longer to rebound from a 2-4 start in the Big 12, especially after a week that featured a setback at Nebraska-Omaha and back-to-back home losses to Kansas.
A midweek clash with Wichita State at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday at Tointon Family Stadium will serve as an important bounce-back opportunity.
“We have had some ups, and we have had some downs,” MaVorhis said. “We are working on being more consistent. We are still trying to reach higher goals. We have higher expectations for ourselves, and we are just trying to keep improving every day.”
Some of that improvement has been hindered by down seasons from proven contributors.
While six batters are hitting better than .300, catcher Blair DeBord’s average has dropped to .236. While K-State’s starting pitching, especially with the emergence of Griep and his 1.79 era as a freshman, has been encouraging, its bullpen has been disappointing. Closer Jake Matthys, arguably the team’s best pitcher a year ago, has a 9.69 era and two saves.
Maybe they got caught up in the expectations. Perhaps they were looking at the finish line instead of the task in front of them. Whatever the case, something needs to change.
“It’s been a grind,” DeBord said. “We didn’t get off to the start we exactly wanted. We have had some road woes. For us to take off from here and have a chance to do the things we really want to do, we have to get locked in, and I think we are really getting to that point where guys are starting to realize that every at-bat means something, and every game means a little bit more. We are excited about that.”
After dominating Kansas in the first game of a weekend series, the Jayhawks overwhelmed K-State with pitching in the final two games. The Wildcats have lost three of four.
They need to regain their confidence quickly. After Tuesday’s game with the Shockers, they play at Nebraska on Wednesday and they travel to Texas Tech for a three-game series starting Friday. Then it’s back to Nebraska again before starting a five-game home stand.
It’s an important stretch that, if handled correctly, could lead to big things.
“It’s a swing time for us right now,” Hill said. “These next couple weeks, they are going to be some big games for us. We will have to wait and see how we come through it. They won’t break our season, but they can obviously put a little pressure on you or take some pressure off.”