2008 Kansas State Baseball Preview

Being so close and falling just short makes you more determined the next time around. Every athlete has the same mentality and those returning from the 2007 Kansas State baseball squad are no different. The Cats could have plenty of “what-if” thoughts following the ’07 campaign, a season where they came a few wins short of the school’s first ever NCAA Tournament bid. What if they didn’t get swept in the final weekend of the regular season? What if they had won two-of-three in the Big 12 Championship? What if the injury bug hadn’t hit midseason, forcing some of its starters to the bench and changing around a lineup that had been consistent for most of the year?

K-State returns 22 letterwinners from last year’s club, all of whom felt the pain of coming up just short of making the tournament. If experience has anything to do with the way the 2008 season will unfold for the Wildcats, “what if” won’t be in the vocabulary and K-State will be heading into depths the program has never reached in its 108-year history.

“This will be the most experienced ballclub we have had here at Kansas State since the coaching staff took over in 2004,” head coach Brad Hill said. “We have a good nucleus of upperclassmen who have played a lot of innings in the Big 12. I know we’re hungry from last year with how close we were to reaching the tournament and falling just short.”

The 2008 version of the Wildcats brings back a wealth of experience as they return a third-team All-American, three All-Big 12 performers and altogether seven returning position starters and 11 pitchers from a squad that came within an eyelash of their first taste of June baseball.

Although falling just short was the end result of the 2007 season, Kansas State, while fielding many underclassmen in key roles, took yet another step in the right direction. Hill, entering his fifth year at the helm of the program, guided K-State to its highest win total in 20 years with 34 victories and came within one triumph of tying the school’s single-season mark, proving that the Wildcats have continued to improve since Hill took over the reigns of K-State baseball in 2004, and an experienced 2008 squad looks to set the bar even higher.

PITCHING STAFF
K-State returns 11 pitchers from last year’s staff that pitching coach Sean McCann guided to the third-lowest ERA in school history at 4.68, the fourth-most strikeouts with 383, the second-lowest hits per nine innings at 9.3 and the second-lowest opponent batting average at .270.

“They have a lot of experience,” Hill said about the staff. “They are kids that have pitched in the Big 12 and know what it takes to be successful in the Big 12. I think the pitching staff is the most experienced part of our ball club and we’re excited for an extremely successful spring with this group of guys.”

Two weekend starters return in Brad Hutt and Chase Bayuk. Hutt, a two-year Friday starter, looks to improve on an ultra-successful junior season in which he tied the school’s single-season record for wins with nine and compiled a 3.07 ERA. He was named to the All-Big 12 Championship Team after scattering just three hits and giving up one run in eight innings to lead K-State to a 5-1 win over Nebraska. Hutt is also seven wins away from tying the K-State career record of 25.

Bayuk, the Saturday starter for the past two seasons, also returns for his senior run after and looks to rebound after a junior-year slump. As a sophomore in 2005, Bayuk picked up seven wins, but dropped his record to 5-6 in 2007. However, the coaching staff believes that after a strong summer and fall, Bayuk will be back to his old form, a form he showed in his best performance of 2007 at Oklahoma State. Against the Cowboys, the southpaw went 8.1 innings and gave up just one run on seven hits to lead K-State to a 7-1 victory.

“We’re counting on these two to have successful senior seasons for us,” Hill said about Hutt and Bayuk. “We’re looking for Brad to be that Friday night guy that gives us great consistency and confidence on the mound. Chase had a great sophomore year and he looks like during the fall he’s ready to bounce back and be a great starter for us on the weekend.”

A group of guys are vying for the No. 3 spot in the rotation, but the likely candidate heading into the season is Manhattan native Justin Murray. The junior is coming off a great summer in the Texas Collegiate League as he was named the TCL’s No. 3 prospect by Baseball America. The tall, lanky right-hander earned a 4-3 record in 24 appearances, including four starts, in 2007. His best start was a 6.2 inning outing against James Madison in which he gave up four runs and struck out seven batters en route to picking up his first victory of the season.

Although Murray is the early candidate, others are also in the mix to be the No. 3 starter. Ben Hornbeck and Trevor Hurley both return for their junior seasons. Hornbeck collected a 2-2 record in 16 appearances, including 10 starts, the third most in 2007. Hurley, a versatile righty, was 1-3 as a sophomore with a 5.03 ERA in 18 appearances - three of which were Sunday starts in the Big 12 - but also pitched well in late-inning situations as he recorded two saves on the season. Another candidate for the No. 3 spot is Todd Vogel. Vogel, who started four midweek games in 2007, was 3-1 in 20 appearances and registered a 4.24 ERA. A.J. Morris, Todd Vogel and Tyler Ruch are also competing for the No. 3 spot and are candidates to pitch midweek games in 2008.

“Determining the No. 3 spot is a combination of who best fits that role and who can best help our team coming out of the bullpen,” said Hill.

The Cats also bring back third team all-American closer Daniel Edwards, who was drafted in the 27th round of the 2007 MLB Draft by the Cleveland Indians, but opted to finish out his collegiate career. A 2008 preseason All-American by the NCBWA and a member of the Wallace Award Watch List, Edwards tied a single-season school record with 11 saves in 2007. The overpowering righty also produced a 3-0 record with a 2.27 ERA, struck out 49 batters in 35.2 innings and limited opponents to just a .173 batting average.

“Anytime you have someone at the back end of the game that you have confidence in to go out there and know that you’re going to win, that gives the team a lot of confidence to get the lead before the eighth or ninth inning. Daniel does that for us. He’s a fierce competitor and to turn down the professional contract to come back to Kansas State says a lot for how badly he wants the program to take the next step in a NCAA Tournament bid,” Hill said.

Other pitchers who will make this pitching staff the deepest in years are returnees Scott Bachman and Jason Linn, as well as newcomers Justin Aragon, Connor Beer, Scott Cure, Lance Hoge, Justin Lindsey, Mike Pierce and Thomas Rooke.

CATCHERS
Kansas State returns its regular catcher in junior Rob Vaughn. As a sophomore, Vaughn started 47 of the team’s 58 games behind the plate and is the team’s most experienced receiver. Vaughn, who hit in the nine-hole in ’07, had a .267 average, but also showed the potential to be a power hitter as he had eight doubles, three homers and 24 RBI, four of which came in a grand slam at Texas to propel the Wildcats to a 11-9 win over the No. 9 Longhorns.

“Rob is another experienced guy returning to us, which is extremely important to have behind the plate,” Hill said. “It’s important to the pitching staff to have a guy like him back there because he a calls good game and gives the pitchers a lot of confidence.”

Sophomore Daniel Dellasega received valuable experience as he saw action in 13 games with 11 starts behind the dish, hitting .273. The Wildcats added two freshmen catchers to build depth behind the plate in Shaun Deisler and Cameron Welch.

INFIELDERS
All four projected starters for the infield in 2008 are experienced as all are either returning starters or players who have received significant playing time the past few seasons.

Sophomore Justin Bloxom will man first base after a quick start to his freshman campaign in 2007. Bloxom started 26 games in ’07, half of which were at first. Bloxom had an outstanding fall series, hitting three home runs and driving in eight RBI.

“Justin had a tremendous fall for us,” said Hill. “He really showed great power potential as a switch hitter and has shown that he can be a very productive first baseman for us offensively and defensively.”

Next to Bloxom, fifth-year senior Brett Scott, who shared starting duties with departed senior Eddie Vasquez in 2007, will take over full-time at second base. Scott hit .286 as a junior with 21 RBI and was outstanding on defense as he recorded just one error in 106 total chances.

“Brett provides great stability and leadership in the middle infield. He knows where to be and helps direct traffic out there. His communications skills on the field are outstanding and he’s a guy that has valuable Big 12 experience,” Hill said.

Third base also returns an everyday player in Nate Tenbrink, who started 50 of the team’s 58 games in 2007, all of which were at the hot corner. The junior hit .280 in 2007 and was first on the team in doubles (11) and triples (4) and second on the team in at-bats (183), hits (51), runs (35), RBI (32) and total bases (79).

“Nate’s just a great athlete - probably one of the best athletes on our team,” said Hill. “We’re excited for him to be back in his second year as the starter at third and he has also really stepped up his leadership role, which is big to have another leader on the field.”

Junior Drew Biery, who’s had 34 of his 52 career starts at first, will make the full-time transition to shortstop to replace departed senior Eli Rumler. Biery, who also suffered a season-ending injury in 2007, has had experience at short as he was the backup to departed senior Eli Rumler.

“It’s going to be a pretty natural movement for Drew to shortstop,” Hill said. “He doesn’t look like your prototypical shortstop, but he has great lateral move and a great arm.”

True freshmen Carter Jurica and Jason King could also see significant time in the infield. Jurica was very consistent at the plate during the fall series as he hit .438. King comes to K-State following an illustrious prep career, being named the 2007 Ohio Coaches and Ohio High Magazine Player of the Year.

“Carter Jurica is a very athletic freshman and can play either second or shortstop while King had a great fall for us and showed the potential to be in the lineup on a regular basis,” said Hill.

Newcomers Chris Reese and Matt Giller provide added depth in the infield.

OUTFIELDERS
The Wildcats return all three outfield starters in 2008. Adam Muenster was a 33-game starter in left field as a redshirt freshman and was third on the team with a .294 batting average while driving in 20 runs.

“There’s no doubt that experience helped Adam last year,” Hill said. “He can use that experience to his benefit this year. He has great speed and surprising pop in his bat. We’re looking for Adam to be a catalyst in this offense at the top of the order and be a sparkplug for us offensively.”

Byron Wiley returns as the Cats’ top returning hitter with a .366 average in 2007. He led the Cats in 11 different offensive categories including average, hits (71), RBI (44) and walks (43). A two-year starter in centerfield, Wiley was named second team All-Big 12 by the league’s coaches last season and his average was fifth-best in the Big 12, which boasts some of the nations’ top hitters.

“We’re looking for Byron to be a mainstay in the middle of the order. He had a very consistent year in 2007 and we’re looking for him to be a great leader for us,” said Hill.

Jordan Cruz looks to have the upper hand in right field after starting 23 games as a sophomore. Cruz, probably the most physical player on Kansas State’s roster, hit .270 in 46 games.

“I think Jordan has experience. He’s just a winner. That’s the way to describe him,” said Hill. “He’s a fierce competitor, is willing to do anything for the team and wants to win in the worst way.”

A platoon man entering his final season, Derek Bunker will challenge Cruz for starting duties in right. The senior started 30 games in right field after originally coming to K-State as a catcher. He hit .288 and drove in 28 runs in 2007 and he also had four outfield assists.

Ruch started nine games in left field and five as the designated hitter, but was forced to play first base the final 15 games of the season due to injuries.

“Tyler is a good ballplayer. If he focused just on pitching he may be one of our top three pitchers and if he focused just on his outfield play he’d be in the outfield everyday,” Hill said. “He brings a lot to the table for us and will be an important part to our success in 2008.”

King could also see time in right while sophomore J.J. Muse had seven starts in the outfield in 2007. Another addition to the outfield is junior walk-on Dane Yelovich, who made the squad after leading the team during the fall series with a .526 (10-for-19) batting average with three doubles.

SCHEDULE
The Wildcats will face its toughest schedule in the Brad Hill era as they will take on 11 teams that qualified for the 2007 NCAA Tournament, including two that advanced to Omaha for the College World Series. Kansas State opponents combined for a .602 winning percentage in 2007, the highest heading into a season under Hill.

“Obviously the Big 12 will be highly competitive again this year,” Hill said. “It’s a highly competitive conference from top to bottom. We really improved our non-conference schedule. I think our program is to the point where we need to be playing teams that will prepare us for Big 12 action and also for postseason play. By improving our non-conference schedule, we’re trying to help our kids understand what it takes to be good everyday and what it takes to play at a high level everyday.”

K-State begins its quest Feb. 22 in California as it has a pair of two-game series at California and Santa Clara. The Wildcats then travel to Beaumont, Texas, for the Cardinal Classic, Feb. 28-March 2, to face Arkansas State, Michigan State and host Lamar, before making a four-hour bus trip west to San Antonio to face UTSA March 4-5.

The Cats begin its home slate with an eight-game stand March 7-16 with four against LeMoyne, a Tuesday evening affair with Washington State and a conference-opening weekend series against Nebraska. The Wildcats then travel to Provo, Utah, with two at Brigham Young, March 18-19. K-State then returns home for its longest homestand of the season as it faces Binghamton March 21-23, Creighton on March 26, Oklahoma State March 28-30 and Central Arkansas April 1-2.

Kansas State hits the road in Big 12 play for the first time April 4-6 at Texas A&M before it comes home to face in-state rival Wichita State April 8 and hosts Baylor April 11-13. The team will then travel to Omaha, Neb., to face Creighton April 15 and then Lubbock, Texas, to face Texas Tech April 18-20.

Following its trip to Lubbock, K-State hits a tough nine-game stretch as it hosts College World Series participant UC-Irvine April 22-23, NCAA Tournament participant Texas April 25-27, travels to Super Regional participant Wichita State April 29 and NCAA Tournament participant Missouri May 2-4, followed by a home date with College World Series participant Arizona State.

The Cats finish out the Big 12 slate at Oklahoma May 9-11 and against Kansas May 16-18. The 2008 Big 12 Championship is scheduled for May 21-25 at Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City, Okla.