Feb. 13, 2012
Today begins a three-part series on the 2012 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 story will cover the Wildcats' outfielders.
Sitting at 20-15 overall and 5-10 in Big 12 Conference play, the 2011 Kansas State baseball team was on the outside looking in when it came to reaching the Big 12 Championship, let alone a third-straight NCAA Regional. Following a heart-breaking, walk-off loss at Nebraska on Monday, April 18, the Wildcats were facing a stretch in which they were just 9-13 in its previous 22 games. Following that contest, the Wildcats were in ninth place in the 10-team Big 12 standings.
Driving home from Lincoln, Neb., that Monday afternoon, the entire squad knew they needed a spark, and they needed it soon. The Wildcats faced a crucial time in the season in which they would play six games in the next eight days, beginning the very next evening. And something clicked on Tuesday, April 19, a day in which K-State topped Missouri State 10-4 and began a six-game winning streak. That streak propelled the Wildcats to a 16-8 run to end the regular season, including a 7-4 mark in conference games to finish sixth in the league standings.
The stretch of good baseball included the first-ever series sweep of Texas Tech, two midweek road wins at CSU Bakersfield and the third season sweep in the last five years of in-state rival Kansas.
K-State went to the Big 12 Championship in Oklahoma City in need of a couple more wins to secure its spot in the postseason. All the Wildcats did was defeat 12th-ranked Oklahoma twice and stay with eventual Big 12 Champion Texas A&M in a couple of close defeats in a final week that pushed the Wildcats into another NCAA Regional.
With 17 letterwinners, including seven position starters and seven pitchers, returning, the Wildcats are facing yet another season with postseason aspirations within reach. However, according to head coach Brad Hill, K-State will need its team leaders to take charge.
"We've had guys that have had solid years that have been role-players or guys that have been crucial parts to teams, but not necessarily the major players on the team. Who are the major players that are going to step up? That is the question," Hill said. "We do have a lot of guys that have played a lot of innings and have been key players for us. Now we really need two or three of those guys to be the feature guys, and it's their time to do that."
As is the case every year in Hill's program, the senior class must be the primary leaders of the squad. All seven seniors - Matt Applegate, Kayvon Bahramzadeh, Jake Brown, Matt Giller, Wade Hinkle, Mike Kindel and Dan Klein - have shown flashes of being able to hold the responsibility, but they must take it to a new level this season.
"These seniors have been a little more vocal," Hill said. "It's new roles for them, but they seem to be accepting those challenges because we have been challenging them as a coaching staff to be more vocal, to take more charge of our preparation with the young players. Hopefully these guys are willing to rely on each other. When you have a group of seniors that can rely on each other, they can have more of an influence on the team."
The 2012 Wildcats must replace some key components to their pitching staff from last season as K-State lost its No. 1 starter in Kyle Hunter and quite possibly the nation's best 1-2 punch out of the bullpen in set-up man Evan Marshall and closer James Allen. All three players were drafted last year, with Marshall being taken in the fourth round, Allen in the seventh and Hunter in the 31st. Combined, the trio can find their names in the Kansas State record book 27 times, including Allen, who set the school's career (31) and single-season (17) records for saves, while Marshall is second in career appearances (85) and Hunter is fifth in career starts (35).
Senior Matt Applegate will certainly take on a bigger role after a season in which he was K-State's No. 2 starter, going 5-5 with a 4.63 ERA in 89.1 innings pitched. Kayvon Bahramzadeh, who has split time between being a starter and working out of the bullpen during his first three seasons in Manhattan, will challenge for a starting spot to begin his senior campaign. Sophomore Shane Conlon served as the Wildcats' Sunday starter during the second half of 2011 as he went 4-1 with a 4.42 ERA, but he only lasted longer than five innings once in his six starts, which was a 6.2-inning outing against Texas Tech in his first career start.
After losing big-time contributors, the unknown is the biggest issue for the Wildcats' pitching staff, but Hill believes that the young talent in the program has a chance to shine this season.
"The pitching staff is full of a lot of unknown guys," Hill said about his hurlers. "We have a lot of guys with experience and guys that have had success, but you're looking at guys that have not put up numbers that we can say, `This is a guy that we can rely upon every time out.' So, the pitching staff is a real unknown. But what's exciting is that there is some talent there. There's no question there is some talent there."
Other key contributors from last year's bullpen return in Gerardo Esquivel (1-2, 2.55 ERA, 24.2 IP) and Jared Moore (1-0, 3.44 ERA, 18.1 IP). Esquivel will challenge for a spot in the rotation, while Moore is a young left-handed hurler that gained quality experience as a freshman in 2011. Also, right-handers Jake Doller (1-0, 6.11 ERA, 17.2 IP) and Johnny Fasola (0-1, 3.18 ERA, 5.2 IP) are back.
Those retuning pitchers will be joined by junior-college transfer Joe Flattery, who held a career 14-8 record and a 3.03 ERA in two seasons at Iowa Central CC, along with a group of six freshmen pitchers that will add depth to the staff. Of the group of relievers, three or four must rise to fill the void left by Marshall and Allen.
"Do we have guys that have potential and stuff? Yes we do, but we don't have anyone with Evan's competitiveness or toughness, and we don't have anyone with James' composure... yet," said Hill. "They're going to have to grow into that role, and hopefully they do. If you just look at James' arm and Evan's arm, I think we have three or four guys that have those kinds of arms and talent. But the intangible things that Evan and James brought, we don't have anyone that has brought that yet."