The 2013 season has been anything but normal for the Kansas State baseball team. As the Wildcats prepare to host their first ever NCAA Regional, normalcy will have to wait a while longer.
No. 13 K-State opens one of the biggest weekends in program history Friday afternoon as Wichita State, Arkansas and Bryant come to Manhattan for a highly anticipated postseason clash.
Despite having never played NCAA tournament games at Tointon Family Stadium, which has added seating for the event, K-State coach Brad Hill said his team is trying to keep preparations as consistent with regular season games as possible.
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"The only thing that was different for us is when those bleachers went up," he said. "Other than that, everything has been normal for us. Our people have done a tremendous job of letting us do what we need to do as a team and coaching staff to prepare.
"Today is the day everything starts to seem a little different."
Despite being the host, the Big 12 champion Wildcats (41-17) are the odd team out in terms of style. While K-State boasts one of the best offenses in the nation, ranking second nationally in batting average, the three teams it will compete against for a Super Regional spot are all dominated by stellar starting pitching.
Hill said Big 12 pitching prepared his team for what it faces this weekend.
"TCU had one of the deepest and best pitching staffs we saw all year," he said. "They had guys who could pitch and guys who had velocity. Arkansas, with an ERA under two, is just phenomenal. TCU had an ERA of 2.1 when we saw them, so it's not a lot different."
The Wildcats managed to scrape out wins against the league's best pitching staffs, taking 2 of 3 games against the likes of Texas, Oklahoma and TCU. K-State developed a reputation for coming up with big hits when it needed them most en route to the program's first league crown since 1933.
That won't change with the season on the line, according to outfielder Jon Davis.
"Everybody in our dugout knows we are going to make an effort to come back and win, no matter how far behind we are," Davis said. "We play hard and come ready to play every day. Our lineup doesn't give the pitcher a chance to relax. If someone doesn't get the job done, we know the next guy can get it done. That's how it is all the way down our lineup."
K-State hitters will be challenged from the opening pitch at 2 p.m. Friday against Wichita State, as the Shockers send Cale Elam (7-2, 3.2 ERA) to the mound. The Wildcats never faced Elam in either of the two meetings between the teams this season, both of which K-State won.
"I don't know anything about him," Davis said. "He's a weekend starter, so we haven't seen him. We have seen their whole bullpen, so our plan is to get him out of the game and go against guys we've hit against before."
Outfielder Jared King played with Elam for the Massachusetts-based Falmouth Commodores last summer. The two are good friends, King said, but have never faced each other as batter and pitcher.
"It'll be fun to be able to face him," King said. "I know a little bit about his style. I've been texting him his team is excited for this opportunity, as are we."
If K-State wins Friday, it will face the winner of Arkansas and Bryant Saturday at 7 p.m. The Wildcats would play an elimination game at 2 p.m. if the Shockers prevail.
No. 12 Arkansas enters the weekend with the lowest team ERA in the nation of 1.87. The Razorbacks are considered by some to be the favorite to win the regional, but K-State couldn't care less until the two teams are matched against each other.
"We have to get game one out of the way first," Davis said. "We're not worried about Arkansas right now. They're a good team. Wichita State is a good team, so we can't look any further than that."
King agreed with his fellow outfielder.
"You have to take this tournament one game at a time," he said. "We've been focused on day-by-day preparation all year. We swing it well and we swing it well against good teams. It'll be exciting."
Hill said the Shockers, who qualified for the NCAA Tournament by winning the Missouri Valley Tournament, are worthy of his full attention.
"I'm focused on Wichita State because I'm scared to death of a team that just won five games in a row and won a championship," he said. "They feel really good. It's a dangerous combination to feel confident while you play good baseball."
K-State likes to play the underdog card and usually finds success when it does. Even as a host, King said his team will continue to do so.
We've been the underdog all year," he said. "We were picked to finish almost last in the conference. Our mentality all year has been to take it personally when we are picked to not do well. We're going to take that into this weekend and take care of business."
The winner of the Manhattan Regional will likely head to Corvallis, Ore., for the Super Regional. K-State has never qualified for a Super Regional in its three previous trips to the postseason.