2009 Kansas State Baseball Preview

MANHATTAN, Kan. - The prospects of the 2008 Kansas State baseball season were at an all-time high prior to the campaign as the Wildcats returned 22 letterwinners from a team that went 34-24 and advanced to just the program’s second Big 12 Championship.

However, K-State dug itself a hole early in the season that took almost 11 of the season’s 13 weeks to climb out of. The Wildcats felt the affects of three straight losses to start the season and did not ascend its record better than one game above .500 until winning two of three against No. 22 Oklahoma State, March 28-30.

Despite unachieved preseason expectations against early non-conference foes, Kansas State turned it on during the latter stages the season. Along the way, head coach Brad Hill’s squad was victorious over seven ranked opponents No. 22 Oklahoma State, No. 30 Baylor, No. 11 UC Irvine, No. 25 Texas, No. 8 Wichita State, No. 14 Missouri and No. 3 Arizona State.
 
Kansas State also had plenty to hang its hat on during the conference season as it finished with 11 Big 12 wins to tie for sixth place the most wins and highest finish since 2002 and continued its streak as the only team in the Big 12 to improve its conference finish every season since 2005.

The part of 2008 that will be most remembered by those inside Tointon Family Stadium was the last two weeks in which Kansas State played its best baseball of the season. The Wildcats finished up regular season play by sweeping in-state rival Kansas, its first three-game sweep over a conference opponent in two years and the first over the Jayhawks since 2002. K-State followed that by winning two of its three pool-play games in the Big 12 Championship to advance to Sunday’s title game, the first in school history.

“You hope you can see what can happen when everyone gets on the same page,” said Hill. “The intensity, confidence and unity we brought the last two weeks of the season were things that were very inconsistent throughout most of last year. Hopefully those guys can see from the last couple of weeks that we need to establish a style of play and stay within it all year long.”

Those leading Kansas State in 2009 will be six seniors, all who have gained valuable experience throughout their time in Manhattan.

“We have a lot of experienced guys back in positions,” said Hill. “The outfield positions are guys that have played out there and are very comfortable. Rob Vaughn has a lot of Big 12 experience behind the plate and knows how to handle the pitching staff.”

Vaughn, an experienced Big 12 catcher, must be able to mesh with a pitching staff that returns just five players and welcomes 11 new hurlers.

Justin Bloxom, Drew Biery, Jordan Cruz and Dane Yelovich are all upperclassmen who had great seasons offensively in 2008, but must pick up the slack for departed senior Brett Scott and draftee Nate Tenbrink.

“Offensively,” Hill said, “I like what we have, which is a good balance of speed with some potential for some power. I think what we’re looking at there is some guys that have shown flashes of being very good Big 12 performers, but we just need more consistency.”

If the Wildcats are able to improve on the offensive end, and pitchers begin to mesh and learn how to pitch in the always-challenging Big 12, Hill believes Kansas State has the potential to duplicate the success it enjoyed throughout the latter half of 2008.

“The way we ended showed how far the program has come and what the potential of the program can be.”

PITCHING STAFF
Kansas State returns five pitchers who combined for just 21 starts in 2008. K-State must replace Brad Hutt, an All-Big 12 performer who set the school’s career records for innings pitched with 326.1 and wins with 25. The No. 2 starter from a year ago, Justin Murray, also departed after being selected in the 29th round of the 2008 MLB Draft.
 
The Wildcats will rely heavily on junior A.J. Morris and seniors Lance Hoge and Todd Vogel as its top three starters to open the season.

“It’s their turn,” Hill said. “I think those guys are really experienced guys who are going to get the first opportunity to go out there and establish themselves as leaders of the pitching staff.”

Sophomore Thomas Rooke, who tied for fifth in school history with 25 appearances out of the bullpen last year, could be called upon to start some games this year for the Wildcats. Rooke finished with a 5-1 record the most wins by a K-State freshman since 1999 and held an ERA lower than 2.75 for most of the season en route to Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American honors.

“You do have an ace in the hold with Thomas,” said Hill. “We hope he can build upon last year as he had a really nice year for us as a freshman.”

Another sophomore, Justin Lindsey, gained valuable experience as a freshman as he did not factor into a decision and held a 4.11 ERA in 15.1 innings pitched. Lindsey could also be called upon to make some starts for the Wildcats.

“Justin started off the season by showing some positives early in the year, but the Big 12 ate him up and he didn’t get to pitch as much later in the year,” Hill commented. “We know that it’s in there. We need to get him back to the way he was at the beginning of last year a guy we had confidence in and came in with confidence and popped strikes.”

Not only must Kansas State replace Hutt and Murray, but the K-State career record holder in saves and former all-American Daniel Edwards departed after a stellar career. Edwards, who earned all-region accolades from the ABCA, finished the season with a school-record 12 of the team’s 14 saves in 2008, which was tops in the Big 12 and 14th nationally.

“Obviously you lose Hutt, Murray, Chase Bayuk, guys you knew what you were going to get when you threw them out there, but then you had Edwards in the end. If we could just get to the eighth or ninth inning with a lead, you felt really good about that.”

With no one establishing themselves as the go-to guy at the back end of the game, the Wildcats will look at a few options as the closer in 2009.

Junior-college transfer Josh Crockett was the closer for the 2008 California state championship as he finished the 2008 campaign with a 2-1 record with six saves in 17 appearances.

Along with Crockett, a trio of freshmen - Kayvon Bahramzadeh, Dustin Hobbs and Evan Marshall stood out in Hill’s mind as possible choices to close games. Bahramzadeh had a stellar fall as he went 1-0 with one save and a 3.12 ERA in his four appearances. Marshall was 7-6 with one save and a 2.48 ERA during his last season as a prep, while Hobbs was named his team’s MVP as he tallied a 2.10 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 54 innings in 2008.

“Those are guys that can bring some different things to the table,” Hill said. “I’m not sure how that thing is going to swing, but those will be the four guys we’re thinking about right now. Kayvon showed good maturity as a freshman during the fall, but he and Marshall could be starters, too.”

James Allen is another freshman who will earn a chance to contribute early in the season. A former infielder, Allen began pitching the summer before his senior campaign, but will concentrate all his efforts on the mound at K-State.

“I think he has a chance,” Hill said of Allen. “He has a good high ceiling and a good arm, but just raw.”

Four other freshmen Matt Applegate, Ben Heairet, Kyle Hunter and Chad Jasman as well as two other junior-college pitchers Ryan Daniel and Mark Joukoff enter their first year with the program and could factor prominently into the Wildcat pitching plans this spring.

“It just depends on who goes out there with no fear, confidence and throws strikes. Guys who do those things will get a chance. There’s going to be times where they are just going to get hit and give up some runs. There’s always that adjustment period for those freshmen. The question is who is going to be able to come through the tough times and show the best mental toughness.”

CATCHERS
Despite the inexperience on the mound, the Wildcats are fortunate enough to have an experienced Big 12 catcher returning for his senior season in Vaughn. A native of Humble, Texas, who is lauded for his ability to handle the pitching staff, Vaughn has started 101 career games, including 52 in conference play, and will enter the season as the No. 1 catcher ahead of junior Daniel Dellasega and junior-college transfer David Masters.

“Rob will have the edge because of experience,” Hill said of his catcher. “Our pitchers feel pretty good about him right now and that’s the challenge for the other two guys can you get the confidence that Rob has in those pitchers and if you’re out there they feel just as good about you as they do with Rob.”

Dellasega, a redshirt junior, is in his fourth year of the program where he has progressed every season. Last season, the Pittsburg, Kan., product played in 18 games, making 14 starts. He was just .174 at the plate, but his biggest contribution came on defense where he threw out 32-percent of base stealers.

“Daniel just continues to inch himself closer and is getting better,” said Hill. “I thought he became more of a leader this year. Being his fourth year in, he became more confident in himself and became a vocal leader this fall.”

Masters, a transfer from Seward County CC, gained valuable Division I experience as he played his freshman season at UT-Arlington where he hit .301 with two doubles, one triple and five RBI, while throwing out a team-best 10 base stealers in 33 attempts. Last season at Seward, Masters was named first team all-conference, first team all-region and an honorable mention all-American after he hit .379 with 16 doubles, nine home runs and 46 RBI.

“Masters really swung the bat better than we thought he would. He has a very good arm; he’s just more erratic with it. With him, Rob and Daniel, we have three pretty good guys there that we feel good about,” said Hill.

INFIELD
The infield might be the most experienced part of the team in 2009 as each of the four projected starters made at least 35 starts, including Bloxom and Biery, who made 57 and 54 starts, respectively.

Bloxom returns for his third season and his second as the everyday first baseman. The Phoenix, Ariz., product led the team in virtually every offensive category in 2008, including average (.288), hits (63), and RBI (49). Bloxom, who will contend for All-Big 12 honors, has also improved defensively at first base since entering the program as a catcher.

“Potential is really the word for this club and the same goes for Justin,” Hill said. “If he gets his mind right, stays within himself, takes great fundamental swings which he has a beautiful swing both right and left handed he has the potential to be a .375 or .400 hitter. We need maturity from him. He can’t be a guy that’s great one or two games out of five. He needs to be very good three or four games out of five this year.”

One of the two infield spots where K-State must fill a void is second base as Scott left the program with one of the best fielding percentages in school history. Sophomore Carter Jurica, who made 11 of his 35 starts last season at second, will be in line to become the full-time starter. Jurica hit .240 with six doubles and three home runs, two of which came in one game.

“I’m not sure Carter knows how good he can really be,” said Hill. “What Carter needs to do is give us that aura of confidence because he has a high ceiling. He has great tools, probably the best on the team. He can hit with power, he can run and he can throw. He’s a guy who can grade out really good on the professional level in a lot of areas. Now he has to believe that. He needs to come out and say, I want to be a leader. I want to be a great player.’ If he develops that kind of attitude, the sky is the limit for him.”

Adam Muenster, who has played outfield the past two seasons for K-State, could see some action at second base, while true freshman Jake Brown could also receive some playing time at second.

Muenster, a redshirt junior who came to K-State as an infielder and is a two-year returning starter in the outfield, will split time at both second base and in the outfield. The junior also spent his summer learning to switch hit and performed well from the left side during the fall.

Brown is an in-state product from Russell, Kan., who was the Kansas Gatorade Baseball Rookie of the Year his freshman season. As a senior at Russell High School, Brown hit .486 with 12 extra base hits and 32 RBI.

“I think Jake had a really good fall defensively,” said Hill about the freshman. “He’s just a hard worker, blue-collar type of kid. It’s a matter of finding a way of getting him in because Adam is also sitting there at second base. Adam has experience. It’s going to be a numbers game for Jake, but I will say this if someone were to get hurt, I have no problems putting him out there.”

Third base will also see a new starter at the position, but not a stranger to the starting lineup, as Jason King will move in from right field. The Dublin, Ohio, product made 49 starts, including each of the team’s final 42 games. He finished third on the team with a .274 average with 13 doubles and five home runs, including a grand slam against Creighton on March 26. King does have experience at third base, however, as he made two starts at the position in 2008 and spelled Tenbrink, who was drafted in the seventh round of the 2008 MLB Draft, midway through several other games.

“Jason has a chance to be a very good third baseman. It’s going to take some time to adjust over there, but he worked extremely hard this fall. He knew he needed to get better. He was doing a lot of extra work out there after practice and took a lot of groundballs during the offseason. He’s another guy with untapped potential a switch hitter with a great swing and very athletic,” Hill said.

Just like Bloxom and first base, Biery returns for his second full season at shortstop. The senior recorded a team-high 54 starts in 2008 all at shortstop after starting at first base for the better part of the season in 2007. The Arlington, Texas, native hit .255 as a junior with 13 doubles, five home runs and 32 RBI, and recorded 150 fielding assists, including a K-State single-game record nine against Central Arkansas. Biery, like Vaughn, has a wealth of Big 12 experience as he has started 51 conference games in his career.

“Drew just shows flashes and needs to mature,” said Hill. “He just needs to go out and play everyday. He really did a great job the last two weeks of the season, but I think he hasn’t shown what he can do offensively. I think he’s potentially a .350-type hitter because he can hit the ball the other way, but he needs to do it on a consistent basis. He needs to clear his mind and say Here’s how I want to play no matter what happens.’”

OUTFIELD
The outfield also sees two returning starters as Yelovich and Cruz return for their senior campaigns in center field and right field, respectively, while Nick Martini, a true freshman, has looked as though he as grabbed a hold of the starting spot in left field.

A surprise on last year’s roster, Yelovich returns for his senior campaign. A walk-on from Temple College in Texas, Yelovich was one of the most productive hitters on the squad early in the season. After adjusting to Big 12 pitching, the Friendswood, Texas, product was one of the better players down the stretch for the Wildcats. He finished the season with a .286 average with four doubles and 10 RBI, while he was excellent on the base paths as he was 18-of-19 in stolen base attempts. Furthermore, 16 of his 28 hits on the season were either bunts or infield hits.

“Dane is just the hardest-working kid that I’ve ever been around,” Hill said. “He just continues to try to get better and works at it everyday. He isn’t going to be out-worked or out-hustled by anybody. It’s hard to keep those guys out of the lineup and he finally proved himself enough that he got in there the last two weeks of the season and was a big part of why we turned it around at the end.”

Cruz is also back for his senior campaign after a 2008 season in which he developed exponentially. As a junior, the Hutchinson, Kan., product started 43 games, 41 of which came in the outfield.  He finished with a .269 average with nine doubles, two triples, three home runs and 24 RBI, but perhaps it was his maturity that grew more as he became a leader of the team last season and looks to increase that role during his final campaign.

“He really matured from his sophomore to junior season,” said Hill. “I think you’re never going to take the competitiveness out of him, it’s just how he was going to control that a little bit so that it wouldn’t affect his play. He could have such a breakout year if he can stay healthy. He’s an emotional leader and we really need him in the lineup and on the field for us as much as possible.”

The final outfield position will see a new face as one of the most promising young players in the program is slated to start in left field in Martini. A native of Crystall Lake, Ill., Martini comes to K-State with many accolades as he was rated the top hitter in Illinois by Prep Baseball Report and the Most Valuable Hitter at the 2007 18-under Wood Bat Continental Amateur Baseball Association World Series. Martini was a career .474 hitter at Prairie Ridge High School, while he recorded 55 doubles, six triples, 14 home runs and 101 RBI. Out of any freshman on the Wildcat roster, Martini will be called upon to be a solid everyday player.

“Nick showed very good composure for a freshman,” said Hill. “He didn’t get very rattled during the fall as he handled every situation we threw at him. He doesn’t get too high or too low and shows some maturity as a freshman. He just knows what he does and tries to do it on a very consistent basis. If he doesn’t try too hard and stays within himself, he has a chance of being a .300-plus hitter in the Big 12.”

Muenster will split his time between the infield and outfield, while freshmen Mike Kindel, Dan Rumsey and Jimmy Risi will earn opportunities to gain some playing time throughout the season

SCHEDULE
In 2008, the Wildcats played one of the toughest schedules in the country as they inherited a schedule of 24 teams that combined for a .601 winning percentage the year prior. The Wildcats ended up playing nine ranked teams, including third-ranked Arizona State, fifth-ranked Wichita State and seventh-ranked Nebraska.

The inherited schedule in 2009 doesn’t have the same type of winning record as 2008, but it is still filled with challenges throughout. The Wildcats begin the season with a three-game set, February 20-22, at Houston, which went 42-24 in 2008 and advanced to a regional.

“We’re going to challenge ourselves early again. Going to Houston for a three-game set has not been our forte here in the past to play on somebody else’s field, especially a regional-caliber type team like Houston,” said Hill.

The next weekend, February 26-March 1, K-State will take part in the USD Tournament where it will face Nevada and Pacific on back-to-back days at Cunningham Stadium on the campus of the University of San Diego. The next day, Kansas State will then take on USD, which finished 17th in the nation in 2008, followed by a date with San Diego State at Tony Gwynn Stadium to kick off the month of March.

“Going to San Diego to play USD and San Diego State will be very challenging to play at their places and where they’ve been playing outside more than we have,” said Hill.

The Wildcats begin their 31-game home schedule on March 3 against Creighton before a four-game series against Niagara March 6-8. Kansas State will then take on Arizona State a 2008 Super Regional team in Surprise, Ariz., for a neutral-site series against the Sun Devils at Surprise Stadium, March 10 and 11.

“Arizona State is a great program, but I think every time we play them, we grow out of that,” Hill commented. “It’s a program that is going to be a top-10 team every year. When we go down there to compete against them, we’re going to see what the Big 12 is going to be like on an everyday basis.”

K-State returns home for an 11-game homestand its longest of the season that kicks off March 13-15 with a four-game series against Butler. Two days later, March 17 and 18, K-State will look for revenge against UTSA in a two-game series after being swept in San Antonio last season.

The homestand also sees K-State begin conference play as it hosts Oklahoma, March 20-22, before a two-game midweek series against Northwestern, March 24 and 25.

A season-long seven-game road trip follows the homestand, beginning with a three-game series, March 27-29, at Baylor. The month of April opens with K-State playing at the home of the College World Series, Rosenblatt Stadium, against Creighton on April’s Fools Day, while two days later, April 3-5, Kansas State will be back in the Cornhusker State as they take on Nebraska.

Following a three-day break, K-State will face a tough five-game stretch as the Wildcats welcome defending Big 12 champion Texas A&M to Manhattan, April 9-11, before they play a home-and-home series against Wichita State on consecutive days April 14 in Manhattan and April 15 in Wichita.

“Last year we played UC Irvine back-to-back, which was tough to play that caliber of team,” Hill said. “It can develop you and could be a momentum swing for you if you play extremely well.”

April 17-19 sees the Wildcats host 2008 regional qualifier Missouri before another mid-week break prior to a three-game set at Texas, April 24-26. The month of April closes with the Cats hosting North Dakota, April 28 and 29.

Following a day off, Kansas State opens the month of May with five-consecutive days of games, starting with a weekend series at Oklahoma State, May 1-3, before a quick turnaround to host BYU its last non-conference opponent of the season May 4 and 5.

Kansas State hosts Texas Tech, May 8-10, before its home finale against in-state rival Kansas on May 15. The Kansas series finishes up the regular season in Lawrence, May 16-17.

The 2009 Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship is slated for May 20-24, at Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City, Okla.

“With the youth we have, we won’t see some of the World Series teams we saw last year because we wanted our guys to have a chance to play at home a little bit more and get them some confidence before the Big 12,” Hill said. “We’d like to establish ourselves as a good home team and let the guys get a little more of a comfort level playing at home.”