The Kansas State baseball team sits at 19-14 and 2-7 in Big 12 Conference play with 19 games left and the toughest stretch of the schedule behind the team.
After sweeping a midweek series against Northern Colorado, the Wildcats get its first non-top-25 in-conference opponent with Oklahoma coming to town this weekend.
The Wildcats will play in front of a 50 percent capacity Tointon Family Stadium starting this week. The season began at 25 percent.
“We get a great atmosphere at Tointon. Even with 25 percent, I thought it was really good,” manager Pete Hughes said. “Our guys are excited. Our fans have good knowledge, they bring energy to the park. I know for a fact our kids play better in front of our fans.”
Hughes is right — the Wildcats are 14-4 at home and 1-8 on the road. Some of that is surely because of the quality of opponents, but there is something to be said for home-field advantage.
K-State had one of the toughest starts to conference play possible with road series against then-No. 13 Oklahoma State and then-No. 3 Texas on either side of a home series with then-No. 3 Texas Tech. The Wildcats got swept by the Cowboys and Longhorns but stole two from the Red Raiders in their first home series win over a top-5 team in program history.
“The first three we played and started the season off was a difficult task and we didn’t answer the call,” Hughes said.
The Wildcats’ season is about where one would expect it to be at this point — the team has mostly taken care of business against teams it should beat and lost to teams that should beat the Wildcats. The next stretch — against good, but not amazing Big 12 teams — should define the season.
“We went through the toughest part of the Big 12 scheduling right out of the gates,” Hughes said. “Wish we stole one or two more games, but we didn’t. Now it’s time for us to play well at home and play better against some of the other teams in the Big 12. Everyone’s good in the Big 12.”
K-State’s starting pitching was perhaps the most exciting element of the team coming into the season. Sophomore Jordan Wicks is lined up to be the squads’ ace with a solid pair of young arms behind him to form the starting rotation for the weekend series.
Wicks, who is currently projected to be drafted 18th overall in the MLB draft by Baseball Prospectus, is actually outshined in Big 12 play by the other two weekend starters.
Sophomore Carson Seymour and freshman Connor McCullough both boast better in-conference ERA’s and opponent batting averages than Wicks. No one comes close to 66 total and 24 Big 12 strikeouts, owing in part to Wicks’ ability to follow mid-90s fastballs with low-80s changeups, all while hitting his targets.
Behind them, Hughes likes to put the ball in the hands of juniors Tyler Eckberg and Jaxon Passino, as well as sophomore Eric Torres to eat innings and finish out games. Eckberg has recorded four saves on the bump for the Wildcats.
Senior Kasey Ford provides double service for the Wildcats, serving as a midweek starter and a spot reliever with great effectiveness. He ranks fourth on the team — behind the three weekend starters — in innings pitched and has an ERA of 1.69, by far the best on the team among pitchers who have pitched more than 10 innings.
On offense, the name of the game is power: the Wildcats rank seventh in the nation with 49 home runs and have jacked at least one in each of the last 11 games.
Among players who have appeared in 75 percent of games and had at least two plate appearances in those games, sophomore Dylan Phillips and junior Zach Kokoska stand out.
The duo are number one and two on the team in batting average, hits, home runs, RBI’s, walks, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and stolen bases per attempt.
Kokoska is slashing a blistering .344/.438/.721 and Phillips is right around those numbers with a line of .363/.442/.661.
According to Hughes, his team will need to focus on winning series and stealing extra games as their season draws to a close.
“You can’t get swept on the road,” Hughes said. “We had our opportunities to win games in Stillwater and in Austin this weekend and we didn’t do it. You gotta move forward. You can’t try to do something superhuman, you just gotta win series. That’s all I’m asking our guys to do is to win series against people that we’re matched-up well against.”
The Wildcats will finish out April at home by hosting three games against Oklahoma, three against West Virginia, a one-off against Missouri and a weekend series with Texas Southern.