Feb. 11, 2013
Today begins a three-part series on the 2013 Kansas State baseball team as we take a look at the team as a whole and the pitching staff. Tuesday's story will highlight the team's catchers and infielders, while Wednesday's article will cover the Wildcats' outfielders.
Kansas State's hard work throughout the 2012 season sent the Wildcats to another postseason appearance, reaching the Big 12 Championship for a school-record sixth-straight year. However, the Wildcats missed an NCAA Regional appearance for the first time in four seasons, hitting a speed bump that resulted in a 27-31 overall record and has them working even harder to ensure K-State is back on the national scene in 2013.
"The entire program was very disappointed in our performance last season and it is something we remind ourselves of every day," head coach Brad Hill said. "We need to improve in different areas where we struggled last year - some things in our control and some things out of our control. We are focusing on things we can control and letting last year be in the past. But we still take valuable lessons from it."
One of the biggest factors K-State can control is experience in the field as it returns six position players, while the Wildcats also regain the services of a pair of players that sat out a majority of the 2012 campaign due to injury.
That experience in the field will need to carry a young pitching staff during the beginning stages of 2013. The Wildcats return just one regular weekend starter from the 2012 season as well as some relievers that have shown flashes in the past, but multiple freshmen will pitch significant innings for the Wildcats this year.
"We are going to need to rely on our experience and leadership in the field," commented Hill. "With Ross Kivett, Blair DeBord, Jared King and Tanner Witt, you have guys with a lot of game experience. We're going to have to rely on their leadership. We don't want to put undue pressure on them to play well, but we need them to play pretty well to start off. I think you can put together a pretty solid lineup that can provide leadership for this team."
As is the case with any Brad Hill-coached team, the Wildcat skipper expects seniors to step up and lead the squad. In the case of the pitching staff, starter Joe Flattery and reliever Jake Doller must take on a leadership role and help develop a young staff.
Flattery, a former junior-college transfer, found a spot in the starting rotation last season as he led K-State starters with a 4.37 ERA in 16 starts. After settling into the role as a weekend starter, the left-hander shined at the end of the year by surrendering no more than three earned runs in six or more innings during each of his final three regular-season starts. That stretch included a complete game at Texas Tech when he allowed one run on six hits with a walk and five strikeouts en route to Big 12 Newcomer of the Week honors.
"Joe just needs to be focused," Hill stated. "He needs to be mentally focused and have that edge that he wants to be our No. 1 guy. We really need him to make a step up. He can be a swing guy for us this season if he decides he wants to be the Friday-night guy and goes out there on a mission to do that. That could really change the complexion of our ballclub."
Doller, a hard-throwing right-hander, has seen action in 50 career games but is looking to become a more consistent part of the bullpen rotation. The Lake Waukomis, Mo., native is coming off a great offseason and looks to use that momentum into his final campaign.
Following Flattery in the starting rotation could be sophomore Nate Williams. A right-hander that served as the program's closer a year ago, Williams set the school record for saves by a freshman with six, a mark that was also fifth in the Big 12 last year. A member of the Big 12 All-Freshman team, Williams worked exclusively as a starting pitcher throughout the summer and fall, and he looks poised to break out as a starter this spring.
"We hope that Nate continues to polish up," Hill said. "His competitiveness is what gets him by, but now can he become a pitcher and not a thrower? He has great sink on his fastball and he's where he needs to be. It's just a matter of being able to pitch five, six or seven innings as opposed to just going out there and airing it out for one inning. I think he has the potential to do that."
The starting job following Flattery and Williams early in the season will be up for grabs between a few young candidates in freshman Blake McFadden and sophomore Matt Wivinis, among others. McFadden was one of the top recruits out of Missouri following a decorated career at Savannah High School. Thanks to a stellar senior campaign in which he went 10-0 with a 0.13 ERA, McFadden earned First Team High School All-America honors by Collegiate Baseball, was the Prep Baseball Report Pitcher of the Year in Missouri and was the Gatorade Missouri Baseball Player of the Year. A 32nd round draft pick by Detroit, McFadden will undoubtedly fill a significant role on the pitching staff if it is not as the third starter.
Wivinis, a right-hander from Downers Grove, Ill., showed potential last season after seeing action in 21 games with three starts. One start was a predetermined pitch-count victory over Hartford in which he allowed two runs with no walks and six strikeouts over 4.1 innings of work.
The Wildcat bullpen will also need to improve from last year as two key pitchers - right-hander Gerardo Esquivel and left-hander Jared Moore - move from sophomores to upperclassmen. Esquivel was a starter at the beginning of last year but found his role as a middle-inning reliever later in the season. He finished with a 3-1 record and was dominant in a career-long 5.2-inning appearance out of the bullpen at Minnesota. He also tossed four shutout frames in an extra-inning affair against Wichita State and shut down in-state rival KU for three innings over a pair of appearances.
Moore, who saw time as both a midweek starter and a weekend reliever, is looking to contribute more on weekends as a junior. The Boulder, Colo., product went 2-4 with a 5.21 ERA overall last year, but showed how he could be a shut-down reliever by going 1-0 with a 3.54 ERA out of the bullpen. One of his better performances came in a series-clinching victory over Kansas when he tossed four scoreless innings with two walks and a career-high seven strikeouts.
"Both have shown flashes of being pretty good," Hill said of Esquivel and Moore. "Gerardo may have the most potential on our staff and has the makings of being a top-10 round draft pick, but unfortunately he hasn't shown that to us yet. He can be a difference maker for us this year and really change the complexion of our ballclub if he makes a step forward. I hate using comparisons, but you look at an A.J. Morris. I'm not saying we need to have a 14-win season out of Gerardo, but just a reliable guy that every time he goes out, you know what you're going to get, and the same with Jared. Last year it was like flipping a coin. We can't be flipping coins with our juniors and seniors."
One dark horse for the K-State pitching staff is senior Tanner Witt. A former high school pitcher, Witt was exclusively a position player as a freshman and sophomore before throwing in eight games last year. The right-hander, who was used in late-game situations, did not allow an earned run in nine innings and surrendered only six hits. Witt could be an option as the closer in 2013.
"He has a feel for the game." Hill said. "It's just a matter of him staying sharp. There were games last year he was very good, which showed that we probably should have been using him a lot more. What we have to do is make sure we're pitching him regularly and not just breaking him out every two weeks and expect him to go out there and be good. If we're really going to use him as a pitcher, he has to pitch on a more regular basis for us this year."
Other than McFadden, multiple freshmen could pitch significant innings for the Wildcats in 2013. Those pitchers include left-handers Landon Busch (6-1; 206; Brookings, S.D.) and Hayden Nixon (6-1; 166; Leonard, Texas), as well as right-handers Colton Kalmus (6-1; 198; Rowlett, Texas), Jake Matthys (5-10; 180; Spring Lake Park, Minn.), Levi MaVorhis (6-1; 200; Freeland, Wash.), Josh Smith (5-11; 175; Conroe, Texas), Zach Vasek (5-11; 180; Rosenberg, Texas) and Jordan Witcig (6-1; 177; Kansas City, Mo.).