Coach Butler aims to improve on ‘good year,’ reach NCAA tourney

Written by Joe Stumpe

The Wichita State baseball Shockers had 10 players drafted by major league teams last year. Coach Todd Butler considers the program “really fortunate” that one of them — Luke Ritter, picked in the 37th round by the Minnesota Twins — decided to stick around for his senior year.

“Luke Ritter, pound for pound, might be the most complete player we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Butler, now in his sixth year, said. “That’s kind of a bold statement.”

Ritter, a 6-foot, 190-pound infielder from Kansas City, earned first team all-conference after leading the Shockers with a .341 batting average. Butler will need more break-out seasons like that from several players if the program is to continue improving and return to the NCAA tournament.

The Shockers won 25 of their first 30 games last year, then stumbled to a 9-14-1 record in American Athletic Conference play. That added up to WSU’s best winning percentage since 2010, but a loss in the conference tournament ended the possibility of playing on.

Ritter is one of four seniors and 10 returning position players. Butler is counting on them to help lead 10 freshman pitchers and new position players.

During fall practices, the Shockers scrimmaged against two outside teams — Nebraska and Arkansas — the latter of which finished runner-up in the 2018 College World Series.

“We played well against Arkansas for nine innings and that was exciting,” Butler, a former assistant at Arkansas, said. “We did have a good fall.”

Pitching is always key, and Butler likes what he’s seen so far. Clayton McGinness, a senior right-hander from Missouri, looks like the team’s top starter going into the season. “He was fantastic all fall,” Butler said. Others he’s counting on include junior Tommy Barnhouse, who did not pitch but now appears healthy; Liam Eddy, a slender sophomore who’s “gained some strength and has a chance to be a guy”; and Alex Segal, a redshirt sophomore who Butler expects “big things out of.”

Butler said another staple of fall practice — the three-game, intra-team “World Series” — was also productive.

“I thought our pitching was really good. The big key was throwing strikes, being in the zone. Offensively, we’re not as strong as the past three years. We have a lot of work to do offensively to get better. We do have more team speed. Hopefully we can run more and put pressure on defenses. Our slogan’s going to be ‘pitching first.’ ”

Butler added that he's “excited about our catching” by junior Noah Croft and freshman Josh Killeen.

This year’s non-conference schedule appears stronger than last year. The Shockers start Feb. 15 at the Angels College Classic tournament in Tempe and Phoenix, Ariz., with games against Pepperdine, Grand Canyon and 2018 NCAA tournament team Stanford. Other non-conference highlights include the home opening series against Creighton March 1-3, a road game at Oklahoma State on March 5 and a three-game series against 2018 College World Series qualifier Texas Tech in Lubbock March 8-10.

“We just continue to play better people,” Butler said.

Maybe that will better prepare the Shockers for the ACC. That conference — considered the nation’s fourth toughest — was a big step up from WSU’s old home in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Butler, who’s in the next-to-last year of his contract, isn’t any more satisfied with the program’s progress over the past several years than the Shocker fan base, which has shrunk as the number of years since the last NCAA tournament appearance — 2013 — has grown.

“Winning takes care of fans,” Butler said. “We had a good year last year, won 35 games and got to our conference tournament. The goal here is to get to a [NCAA] regional.”

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