From ‘rock bottom’ to ‘turning point’: How Shocker baseball snapped lengthy slump

When Brian Green was a first-time college baseball head coach, his first team at New Mexico State lost 15 of its first 16 games and finished with an 11-38-1 record.

He is well-versed in how difficult Year 1 can be in a new program.

After a promising start to this season, Wichita State had been spiraling toward a similar fate. For a five-week stretch beginning in April, the Shockers lost 17 of 21 games, including all but one of their eight mid-week games and American Athletic Conference series sweeps on the road at South Florida and East Carolina.

“April was absolutely miserable for us,” Green said. “We went through a stretch where it felt like we were on the road all the time and we weren’t getting any sleep. We were playing double midweeks, then getting on a plane at 5 a.m. and that’s just not optimal. There was a stretch where we were consistently playing top-25 teams and we’re just not quite there yet. You feel like we’re close, but a mile away.”

Another gut punch was delivered this past Friday when the Shockers felt like they had out-played UTSA, the second-place team in the conference, yet lost the opener, 6-5, because of a pair of costly defensive mistakes.

Green made an impassioned post-game plea to his players to keep bringing the same energy and sooner rather than later, the team would break out of its prolonged slump.

“Honestly, I wanted to see it,” Green said. “Can these guys really do it again? Can they still be that positive and have that much energy after last night and after the last month?”

WSU responded by sweeping a Saturday doubleheader, pounding out 15 hits in a runaway 11-2 victory, then erupting for seven runs in the seventh inning to rally for an 8-4 win in the nightcap.

In seven hours, the Shockers (24-26, 10-11 AAC) changed their reality from potentially failing to qualify for the eight-team conference tournament to being one game out of third place with a three-game series on deck with third-place Charlotte beginning Friday at Eck Stadium.

“We were probably supposed to be a team who was supposed to fizzle away, if you look at the stretch that we’ve been in,” Green said. “But if you look at the makeup of our club, we’ve got some really good people in our locker room and some great leaders. The coaches can say whatever we want, but at the end of the day, the players have to believe themselves. And our leaders don’t let them not believe. They’ve been so positive and not fake positive.”

Junior catcher Mauricio Millan has taken on a key leadership role in the program. Senior ace Caden Favors, who improved to 7-4 this season with a 3.48 earned run average, commands respect with his ability. Reliever Hunter Holmes, a junior-college transfer, has a voice in the locker room, while the passion and competitive fire of freshman starter Tommy LaPour has been infectious.

Why Green believes Saturday will be a turning point late in the season for WSU is what he saw in the dugout in the second game of the doubleheader.

The Shockers trailed 2-0 after six innings with nothing going right on offense. It was the kind of game where a hopeless team would have been satisfied with the earlier win and packed it up for the ride home to Wichita.

Instead, WSU found hope from the bottom of the batting order, as No. 7 No. 7 hitter Brayden Luikart, No. 8 hitter Ryan Callahan and No. 9 hitter Camden Johnson all singled to score a run and load the bases.

Lane Haworth plated another run with a sacrifice fly and Jordan Rogers walked. Derek Williams was hit by a pitch to score another run. Then Josh Livingston came off the bench to crush the his third pinch-hit home run (first player in Shocker history to do that in a season) and the program’s first pinch-hit grand slam since Zach Reding in 2016.

“We’ve been in a pretty miserable stretch and it felt like we were at rock bottom, but our kids just kept hanging in there and believing that we are a good program,” Green said. “Now it feels like we’re at a turning point. If you were on that bus with us after the game, it sure felt like that in the moment.”

After a nightmarish April, WSU is positioned to reverse its fortune in May. Not only do the Shockers host Charlotte, a team they can gain ground on with a series victory, they finish the season at Memphis, the last-place team in the conference with a No. 193 RPI. And then anything would feel possible entering the AAC tournament in Clearwater, Fla. on May 21-26.

For a team that had just three players on its roster early last June, this level of resilience in Year 1 has made Green feel better than he ever has at the start of a rebuild.

“This is the best first year that I’ve ever had,” Green said. “The first year is always about building your program with this is the way we want to operate and trying to get your players in line and your staff and program in a spot where, this is how we’re going to work.

“In that regard, this has been the best Year 1 for that and it hasn’t even been close. That’s a tribute to our players, to the support of our fans and to our assistant coaches. That’s what has me super pumped and I think our fans should be really excited about the future.”