K-State baseball looking for more in 2011

Mother nature couldn’t have picked a better time to deliver a heat wave to Manhattan. With the college baseball season starting Friday for Kansas State, the Wildcats were able to get outside this week and practice for a three-game series at Pacific the way only teams on the West coast normally can in mid February.

On Wednesday afternoon, the entire team worked out under the sun at Tointon Family Stadium. Energy was high, and K-State coach Brad Hill had nothing but nice things to say about his team’s final preseason tuneups.

“It’s been good,” Hill said. “It’s been real good.”

He also could have been referring to the expectations the Wildcats carry into 2011. K-State earned its highest ever placing (fifth) in the Big 12 preseason Coaches’ Poll, and is projected by many to qualify for a third-straight NCAA Tournament.

With Nick Martini, last season’s Big 12 Player of the Year, and his gaudy .416 batting average returning as a junior and nearly every pitcher from last year’s roster coming back, K-State appears worthy of the preseason praise.

“It makes me feel pretty good, because the program has turned around so much in the last two years,” Martini said. “There are high expectations. We’ve got a lot of older guys now, more leadership and the pitching staff is growing. I expect nothing less than the last two years.”

To match, or exceed, those seasons (in which K-State won 43 and 37 games, respectively) K-State will need to get big contributions from a few new hitters at the top of the order and find more consistency in its pitching. But that will come with time.

For now, Hill trusts his players will keep working toward their goals the same way they always have.

“We don’t want to change anything,” Hill said. “Our approach and how we prepare our guys and how they’re preparing, we don’t want to change anything up. Sure, they’re hearing a little bit more about where season ticket sales are, and are hearing more about how enthused people are in the community and around the campus. But at the same time that’s not going to change how we’re preparing or trying to go about our business.”

He will know if anyone starts taking a new approach.

“As a coaching staff we have to be on guard for that,” Hill said. “You like having an older group. You want to make sure they take care of business, but at the same time you want your glove on them as a coach. So you are looking for little things to where maybe we aren’t as sharp as we should be, or maybe we don’t have the preparation we should. We have to make sure we have about eight sets of eyes, making sure everyone is doing the right thing.”

So far, that has been the case.

For example, veteran reliever Thomas Rooke recently learned that he will have to undergo season-ending surgery and play out his senior campaign after he recovers next year. Bad news to be sure, but the team has rallied around him.

“If you had had him, Evan (Marshall) and James (Allen), they may have been three of the best relievers in the country,” Hill said. “Those three guys have been through it all and had success. It was tough on him and it was tough on us, but as a team we’ve just got to move on.”

Marshall, who went 5-5 with a 3.90 ERA last year, and Allen, one of the nation’s top closers, should once again be good at protecting leads when the ball is given to them.

It will be up to starters Kyle Hunter, who is coming off a 9-2 run as K-State’s ace, Justin Lindsey and Kayvon Bahramzadeh to start games strong. Hill also said he has been impressed by pitchers Matt Applegate, Tyler Sturges and Jake Dollar in the preseason.

They will all be relied on.

“What we had trouble with (last year) was getting starters deep into games,” Hill said. “A lot of times that fourth or fifth inning, we had the bullpen going and here comes Evan in the sixth and James in the eighth and ninth and, you know what, they were worn down at the end of the year. I’m really hoping we’re deeper this year, so we don’t have to rely on those guys so much.”

On the offensive side of things, Hill is extremely confident in his lineup. With Jason King coming back fresh from an energy and Jake Brown, Matt Giller, Mike Kindel and Kent Urban all returning, the Wildcats will have an experienced group of hitters.

Hill said he will likely turn to sophomore Tanner Witt to hit in the leadoff spot, freshman Jared King to follow him and Martin and Jason King to round out the top of the order.

Jason King, who hit .316 with seven home runs in 2009, could be a huge contributor.

“I’m relaxed and ready,” he said. “After sitting out all that time I’m ready to go.”

So is the rest of the order. Perhaps the biggest question heading to the season is: What in the world can Martini do for an encore?

“It’s not about numbers,” Hill said. “For our team and for Nick, it will be establishing more of a leadership role — giving himself to the team and not worrying about himself, taking statistics out of it. If he can make others better around him, that will make our team better. He has the potential.”

Martini, like K-State, is looking forward to showing it once again.

“I’m going to go out there and try to do the same thing every day, whether I get pitched to or I don’t get pitched to,” Martini said. “I’m just going to do what it takes to win.”