In his Three Strikes feature, Aaron Fitt of Baseball America writes that Kansas State is well-positioned in a Big 12 race that is up for grabs:
The Big 12 is a free-for-all. After West Virginia took two of three from Oklahoma this weekend, the Mountaineers put themselves in a three-way tie for first place with the Sooners and Kansas State.
The Wildcats have flown under the radar a bit in 2013, but they have quietly positioned themselves as the Big 12′s safest at-large team, with the conference’s best Ratings Percentage Index ranking (No. 24), a solid 6-5 record against the top 50 and a 34-15 overall record. The Wildcats have won four of their last five series, including a road series win at last-place Texas this weekend.
“We just keep plugging along,” Kansas State coach Brad Hill said. “We’re pretty scrappy and, I think, pretty good. We’ve had a lot of different people be solid for us. It’s a pretty versatile offense—obviously there’s some speed combined with the ability to drive balls into the gaps, get some extra-base hits. (Sunday) we got down a couple bunts when we had to execute. It’s a multi-faceted offense.”
That offense is Kansas State’s strength. The Wildcats lead the Big 12 in batting (.323) and scoring (6.3 runs per game) by healthy margins, and the same is true in conference-only games (where they are hitting .313 and averaging 5.4 runs per game).
Preseason All-America outfielder Jared King (.335/.417/.541 with six homers, 42 RBIs and 12 steals) is Kansas State’s best player, and he has played through some hamstring issues and other bumps and bruises to put together a solid season, albeit a quieter season than his 2012 tour de force performance.
“He’s been a little streaky, to be honest with you,” Hill said. “He got off to a rough start, was nicked up with injuries early. A young guy trying to live up to some of the hype, Big 12 player of the year. He never was really right until about a month in. He kind of hit his stride four or five weeks ago, started to get comfortable, settle in. In terms of leadership-type things for us, we really appreciate that. He’s played great defense in center field—his defense has improved considerably. He’s really improved going back on the baseball, going over his head, getting better angles and drop steps.”
King has plenty of help in Kansas State’s deep lineup. Redshirt sophomore Shane Conlon (.341/.434/.535, seven homers, 27 RBIs) has emerged as another power threat in the middle of the order. Conlon was primarily a pitcher in 2011 at K-State, then missed last season after having Tommy John surgery and has re-established himself as a first baseman. Hill said Conlon and shortstop Austin Fisher (.356/.429/.500) have been the two most consistent hitters in the lineup, and second baseman Ross Kivett (.354/.436/.467, 20 steals) has been the catalyst atop the order. Fisher and Kivett also form a reliable double-play combination, helping K-State field at a solid .973 clip
That solid defense has been key, because Kansas State’s pitching has struggled. The Wildcats have a 4.16 ERA in conference play (eighth in the nine-team Big 12), and they have not gotten consistent quality starts in the rotation. Kansas State shook things up last weekend, moving freshmen Levi MaVorhis and Blake McFadden into the rotation, and KSU’s quality bullpen continued to shoulder a heavy burden, carrying the Wildcats to a pair of wins. But ultimately, K-State needs sophomore righty Matt Wivinis and senior lefty Joe Flattery to start and pitch deeper into games in order for this team to be dangerous in the postseason.
“We haven’t really established guys who would go six or seven innings. We’re kind of piecing it together, trying to get through the Big 12 here,” Hill said. “We’ll get to the Big 12 tournament, and Flattery and Wivinis will have to pitch. We’ll have to put them out there, hope they can go five or six. There’s no question, they have good stuff. They just need to do a better job of getting ahead of hitters; they haven’t done that consistently.”
In the meantime, the Wildcats will just keep plugging along, grinding out wins.