Stephens: Small ball key for Toppers in ’13 season

Brad Stephens

It’s not 2009 anymore in college baseball, or at WKU.

That was the last year the Toppers advanced to an NCAA Regional, and they did so with the long ball.

Third baseman Wade Gaynor hit 25 home runs. First baseman Chad Cregar had 19. Outfielder Matt Hightower and catcher Matt Rice hit 11 and 10, respectively.

But college baseball has changed dramatically since the NCAA enforced rules in 2011 to deaden the game’s aluminum bats.

In 2012, a year in which WKU finished 25-33 and eighth in the Sun Belt Conference, no WKU player hit more than outfielder Ryan Hutchison’s eight.

No longer do Douglas Keen Hall residents have to worry about blasts from the likes of Cregar and Gaynor flying over the Nick Denes Field’s left-center field wall and nailing their parked cars.

NCAA baseball is now about solid weekend pitching, sturdy defense and the ability to manufacture runs in a tight game.

Last year, the defense was there for the Toppers, who committed 65 errors, compared to 84 from their opponents.

The pitching was a little more suspect, though much of that was out of WKU’s control. Coach Matt Myers and his team couldn’t have anticipated losing their ace, Tanner Perkins, early in the season to a Tommy John injury.

But the area that really hamstrung the Toppers was their inability to get guys on base and get them in to score.

WKU hit .252 as a team — its opponents hit .278. The Toppers stole 27 bases — their opposition stole 69.

WKU has played pretty good defense in previous years, and that shouldn’t change.

The pitching should also be much improved this year, especially with the news that Perkins is healthy and will be the team’s Sunday starter to begin the season. A weekend rotation of Justin Hageman, Tim Bado and Perkins means the Toppers won’t be giving up a whole lot of runs.

But they’ll have to score at least a few if they’re to win some games to avoid missing a fourth straight NCAA Tournament.

In the days of Cregar and Gaynor, WKU could win some 11-8 games. The way college baseball has changed, your lineup had better have the contact hitting and speed necessary to manufacture runs in those 3-2, 2-1 type games.

First baseman Ryan Huck, one of the Toppers’ few power hitters, said baserunning is indeed a renewed emphasis for WKU this spring.

“It’s definitely important for us to be able to steal bags,” Huck said, “get on base, read dirt balls — any way we can advance to get into scoring position to let the next guys try and drive them in will be huge.”

That means players like shortstop Steve Hodgins, outfielder David Simmons and infielder Griffith Roark will be called upon to get to first, swipe second and get in scoring position.

Few outside of the Toppers’ locker room are expecting much of a team picked seventh in the conference and without a single player named to the preseason All-Conference team.

That means WKU must pitch, defend and steal its way to a good season.

If they can do those things, then the maybe the 2013 Toppers will be the ones to break the program’s postseason drought.