May 15, 2013
This feature was published in the K-State Sports Extra on May 15.
By Mark Janssen
Shane Conlon isn’t surprised at all the Kansas State’s baseball needs just one win to wrap up its first conference championship since … get this … 1933 heading into this weekend’s final series of the year against Oklahoma.
“I’ve always been taught to set my goals high, and after the fall I thought if things would click early in the spring we could have a special year,” said the Wildcat first baseman. “I think the people in our league are more surprised than we are.”
Kansas State owns a 14-7 Big 12 record, which gives the ‘Cats a two-game advantage over 12-9 Oklahoma and 12-9 West Virginia, while another half-game back are 11-9 Oklahoma State and 11-9 Baylor.
This weekend, the Sooners will come to Tointon Family Stadium for games at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, 6:30 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday. Elsewhere, West Virginia plays at Oklahoma State in the only other set of games that can figure in winning the Big 12.
If K-State wins one game, it’s guaranteed at least a share of the Big 12 title should West Virginia sweep the Cowboys. If the ‘Cats win two games, the program has its first outright title in 85 years.
If K-State is the Comeback Team of the Year in the Big 12 after a 7-17 eighth-place finish a year ago, then Conlon is the Comeback Player of the Year.
It was last March (2012) that Conlon was a left-handed pitcher for the Wildcat. He suffered a season-ending elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery leaving his 2013 season in doubt.
It was certain that he couldn’t pitch, and somewhat iffy on the type of contribution he could give the Wildcats in the field and at the plate.
It’s now 52 games into the Wildcats’ 37-15 season and Conlon has played in 51 of those games at first base. He has posted a lofty .340 batting average to go with a team-high seven home runs. His on-base percentage is .434 and slugging percentage is .528.
“He’s a gamer,” said head coach Brad Hill. “He plays the game hard every day. Every pitch and every out he’s giving everything he has.”
While strictly a hitter and first baseman this year, Hill isn’t ruling out Conlon returning to the mound in 2014.
“That will be interesting to see. Everyone needs a competitor who is a left-hander,” said Hill. “He could be a huge bonus for us throwing just two or three innings a week.”
Another one high on the idea of returning to the mound is Conlon, himself.
“I see Tanner Witt doing it for us this year,” said Conlon. “He doesn’t over-think the role, but just goes out and competes and gives everything he has.”
Of his pitching abilities, Conlon, who can hit the upper 80s with his fastball, said, “I just know how to pitch. I’m not going to over-power you, but I hope I’ll be smart enough to get you out.”
As a freshman, the Naperville, Ill., native posted a 4-1 record and 4.42 ERA in 11 games on the mound. As a part-time starter at first base, he hit just .161 in 56 at-bats.
“As a freshman, I’m not sure if I was ready to see Big 12-type pitching,” said Conlon, who will play his summer baseball in the California Collegiate League for San Luis Obispo. “Right now I have that experience and at-bats under my belt and I’m hitting with confidence.”
Seeing action only as a pitcher last year, he was 1-1 with a 6.35 ERA.
As a hitter, Conlon sees himself as a “gap” guy, but has surprised himself this year with his seven home runs.
Laughing, he said, “I just try to get on base so guys like (Jared) King can knock me in.”
Heading into the final three games of the regular season, Conlon finds himself among the best on the team in home runs (seven, 1st), runs scored (47, 1st), on-base percentage (.434, 2nd), slugging percentage (.528, 2nd), batting average (.340, 3rd), walks (22, 3rd), multiple-hit games (20, 3rd) and hits (67, 3rd).
Overall of his team that carries a collective .321 average, Conlon says, “We’re a tough team to pitch to. There’s not an easy-out in the lineup. Our hitting has become contagious. As a pitcher, it would be a tough lineup. Hitters one through nine are going to give you a good battle. If this guy doesn’t get the job done, the next guy will.”