Baseball returns home, aiming to build around starting pitching, young talent

The Kansas State baseball team competes in the Fall World Series on Oct. 10, 2020. Team Gray was victorious in the final game of the series, defeating Team Purple 6-3. (Dylan Connell | Collegian Media Group)

The Kansas State baseball team (2-2) returns home this weekend after a roller coaster of an opening series at the Sanderson Ford College Classic in Surprise, Arizona.

“2-2 is not our expectation level, that’s for sure,” head coach Pete Hughes said in his press conference on Thursday. “Any time you have quality starting pitching, you are going to have a chance to beat some people, but we need to play cleaner baseball.”

Starting pitching was far from the issue over the weekend, led by sophomore Jordan Wicks and redshirt freshman Connor McCullough. The two combined for 19 strikeouts over 14 innings.

Wicks was named the Big 12 Pitcher of the Week and took the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) National Pitcher of the Week on Monday. The southpaw is at the top of college baseball with a 0.00 ERA, and a .71 walks and hits per innings pitched.

“He’s constantly getting better and evolving,” Hughes said. “With a starting pitcher, you want your pitch ability to get better, and adding a new pitch to your repertoire usually does that so you can go through a lineup three or four times.”

According to Hughes, Wicks has been able to add a cutter that he developed over the spring and summer.

Having only played four games so far this season, players are still competing for roles as the bullpen takes shape.

“The people on the back end have expended their roles, and that is going to take a little bit to get used to,” Hughes said. “That is what we try to find out here in these early series. It gets competitive whoever wants that role; they will show through.”

The bullpen provided some dominant outings but overall still gave up 11 total runs in the final three innings over the weekend.

“We have to be a great team from the seventh, eighth and ninth inning on,” Hughes said. “We are going to get quality starts, that is no news flash, and we have to own those last three innings, and it will be super competitive for these guys to identify what role they have.”

Senior pitcher Kasey Ford is an option to come out of the bullpen because of the nature of college baseball with multiple days between games. He is listed as the fourth starter in the rotation, and the Wildcats have some flexibility with his role.

Offensively, true freshman infielder Nick Goodwin had a solid opening series at the two-spot and as the clean-up hitter.

“[Goodwin] has been one of the most consistent guys since he stepped on campus,” Hughes said. “It is amazing because he didn’t even play his high school season in the spring.”

In 12 appearances at the plate, the Overland Park, Kansas, native led the Wildcats, batting .417 with four RBIs and a .611 on-base percentage. Not only was he making contact, but he showed patience at the plate with six walks and only two strikeouts.

Goodwin jumped into the new role and impressed right out of the gate.

“The kid just plays even keel, and those guys, if they are talented enough, they have success right away because no moment is too big for them,” Hughes said.

To bat in the heart of the order on a first career start, on opening day, is not a typical role at the higher levels of baseball, but Pete Hughes saw enough of Goodwin to have confidence in his young infielder.

“I didn’t hesitate on putting him in at the top of the lineup because he has been battle-tested against our arms, and I think our arms are pretty good,” Hughes said.

The Wildcats will have the luxury of home-cooking for nearly three-weeks with an eight-game home stand. K-State only played at home five times before the 2020 season came to a sudden halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our guys feel comfortable at home,” Hughes said. “I set up the schedule to get our guys feeling good before we head into Big 12 play, and there is no better place to do that than at home.”

The Wildcats will open with a three-game series against Western Michigan who kicks off their season with the series. First pitch for game one is slated for 3 p.m. on Friday.

Wicks (1-0) will pitch for K-State, and sophomore Easton Sikorski (0-0) will toe the slab for the Broncos. Redshirt sophomore Carson Seymour will pitch Saturday, and McCullough will finish the series on Sunday. All games are available on Big 12 Now on ESPN+ and KMAN radio.