The Kansas State baseball team has made the NCAA regionals a norm for the program, earning a spot in the tournament in each of the past three seasons.
The win totals from each of those seasons are the top-three winning seasons in program history and head coach Brad Hill enters 2012 sixth in the nation among active coaches with a winning percentage of .706 for his career.
In many ways, this is the golden age of Wildcat baseball.
But Hill and the Cats are just concerned about the now, and even more importantly, are in a state of transition.
K-State, which opens the season on Saturday afternoon at CSU-Bakersfield at 4 p.m., no longer has the sure bats of Nick Martini or Jason King. The Wildcats will also be without the solid arms of Evan Marshall and James Allen — a pair of dominating relievers who more often than not shut the door on opponents late in games the past few years.
“Last year, we were spoiled with having two of the best relievers in the country,” Hill said during the team’s media day earlier this week. “It was as good as it gets… it was one of those games you try to manage for five innings and you turn it over to those guys and you feel pretty good. If you have a lead or tie, you feel pretty good about winning that game.
“We have a lot of unproven guys this year. We’re going to be really young and untested, but that’s why we are going to try and play a lot of games early and get those guys out there. Hopefully we’ll get some experience and confidence for them.”
Returning to the mound for K-State are seniors Matt Applegate and Kayvon Bahramzadeh. Applegate will start the season as the Cats’ No. 1 starter. He was 5-5 in 16 starts last season with an ERA of 4.63. Bahramzadeh pitched in 20 games a year ago, including five starts.
Sophomore Johnny Fasola, junior Jake Doller and freshman Nate Williams will be on call for work in the late innings.
“We’re going to need Applegate and Kayvon to go out and set the tone for us” Hill said. “And there are going to be some younger guys that will have to step up.
“We need a good year out of Jake Doller, a kid that’s had experience the last two years for us. He’ll have to have a big year for us and of course be consistent.”
Offensively, Hill acknowledged that his team will miss the fire power of Martini and King — players who led K-State, and in some cases the Big 12 in batting categories throughout their careers.
But Hill is comfortable with the bats that are returning.
One of those is King’s younger brother, Jared, who was named a freshman All-American last season.
“We do have a lot of bats coming back,” Hill said. “We do have some experience (there), we are going to need some guys to take the next step forward and progress their game, but we have some good kids (back).”
Along with Jared King — who hit .307, totaled 40 RBIs and clobbered eight home runs a year ago — seniors Jake Brown, Matt Giller, Wade Hinkle, Mike Kindel, catcher Dan Klein and sophomore Ross Kivett all return.
“You think about Matt Giller and Jake Brown, guys who have been around for four years — we’re excited to have them,” Hill said. “Mike Kindel… those guys provide great leadership for us and they have. I’ve been very pleased with their leadership roles and setting good examples for us.”
Kindel was third last season in RBIs with 41, behind only King and Martini, while Kivett was third on the team a year ago with a .314 batting average. King and Martini both hit .326.
“One thing we need to understand is that this is a different team,” Hill said. “Guys are going to have different roles this year.
“But the big thing we want to do is to establish an identity.
“We go play early and want guys to understand how we play the game, and how we don’t want the other team to dictate to us — we want to dictate to them. Winning is important, if you can snare those wins on the road, those are huge. But if you win some games early and not play well late, it doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
The Wildcats will open their home slate on March 2 against Pacific with a three-game series beginning that Friday.
K-State will play a one-game set at Nebraska on Tuesday, March 6 — the first meeting as non-conference foes.