In an effort to get you as fired up as possible for WSU's return to the NCAA baseball tournament, here is the first of our three capsule previews of WSU's potential opponents at the regional this weekend at Oklahoma. We'll look at OU next and culminate Thursday night with the Cougs' opening opponent, Arkansas.
If you're unfamiliar with any of the statistics we reference -- you'll remember from basketball season how much we hate raw statistics and love rate statistics -- just click on the link for an explanation. You can find a spreadsheet with all the team stats we're referencing here.
Record: 30-25, 11-7 Missouri Valley Conference
Coach: Gene Stephenson
How they got here: Won the MVC tournament championship and accompanying automatic bid
NCAA Tournament history: Though the Shockers are considered mid-major in other sports, they are decidedly major in baseball. Wichita State is making its 27th NCAA tournament appearance, during which time the Shockers have won a national championship (1989), made seven College World Series appearances and piled up nine regional championships -- including one in each of the past two years.
The season in a nutshell: The Shockers are really, really young, and they played like it in the heart of the season. An eighth consecutive NCAA Tournament seemed like a longshot on May 6 -- the Shockers had just lost their fourth in a row and 12th in 16 games to drop to 24-24. But a canceled series against Southern Illinois gave the Shockers a 12-day break, and it proved to be the respite their young brains and bodies needed. They won six of their final seven, including four straight in the MVC tournament to end up in Norman.
Standing in the batter's box, you don't want to face ... Tim Kelley. After a spotty redshirt freshman season, the 6-foot-6 sophomore has had a breakout season for the Shockers, leading the staff with a 2.64 ERA and 96 strikeouts. The righty's 26 percent strikeout rate is second-highest among starters at this regional -- second only to WSU's own Matt Way. (Average is just under 16 percent.) He doesn't do it with overpowering stuff, according to this site, which tracked Kelley on his summer league team:
He’s mainly about touch and feel. ... His fastball was primarily in the 86-89 mph range this summer, topping at 90, but it has good movement. Kelley has an excellent aptitude for pitching. He keeps hitters off balance, is always around the strike zone and has excellent command of his fastball, slider and changeup.
The same site rated Kelley the best pro prospect in the Jayhawk league, and rated him with the league's best curveball. There's a possibility he throws harder than 90 now, after another year of weight training. He's listed at 200 pounds on that site, but Wichita State's roster now lists him at 215.
Not bad for a guy who only pitched 11 games in high school.
Looking down from the hill, don't give anything to hit to ... Clinton McKeever. The burly 6-3, 240-pound junior first baseman doesn't hit a ton of home runs -- only six, for an ISO of .182 (elite power hitters are usually up around .300) -- but he crushes in the gaps and is an on-base machine to the tune of .344/.423/.526 for a team-leading .949 OPS.
The Shockers could win the regional if ... their pitching staff is lights out. It's tough to say if that's a realistic expectation -- although both Jordan Cooper and Charlie Lowell have been excellent, one has to wonder if two true freshmen can carry a team to a regional title this late in the season. And if they lose the opener to Oklahoma, it becomes doubly difficult -- in terms of starters, it drops off real, real fast after those three, and the road will be long.
The Shockers will be 0-2-barbecue if ... the offense can't compete with top level pitching. To say Wichita State's offense isn't imposing is an understatement; their team OPS of .752 is below the national average of .795. Outside of McKeever, the Shockers are basically a collection of contact hitters who like to try and get on base and do their damage on the basepaths -- their 2.21 steal attempts per game is well above the national average of 1.59. They'll try to bleed you to death, and if the Shockers can't string together enough hits or get thrown out stealing with regularity, it's going to be a short weekend no matter what the pitching staff does.