Caleb Littlejim squinted into the setting sun, rounding the bases seconds after he lined what looked like a extra-base hit over the wall, good for a two-run home run for Kansas State in the second inning.
It was a surprise homer, one that looked more like a double than a no-doubter, but the two runs gave K-State an early 5-1 lead over Omaha Wednesday evening.
The best part for the Wildcats, though, was that it wasn’t the best part of Littlejim’s performance.
The junior also started on the mound and twirled six innings of one-run ball, helping K-State secure a 7-2 win over Omaha in more ways than one at Tointon Family Stadium.
“I just focused on filling up the zone,” Littlejim said, “and throwing all my pitches for strikes. I felt pretty confident today.”
It was a long time coming for Littlejim, long a member of K-State’s club but seldom a star. He recorded the first at-bat of his career this season, after serving as nothing more than a pinch-runner in select situations for the previous two, and he made just 12 pitching appearances last year.
Littlejim is hitting .236 this season, and he didn’t get many chances to play in K-State’s series against Creighton last weekend, but he’s finally getting to prove he should have gotten more of them earlier.
“I’ve always wanted to play every day and be a positional player — hit and play in the field,” Littlejim said. “It’s a dream come true for me. Thankful to God for the opportunity. It’s a big blessing.”
The good news for K-State: Littlejim’s 1-for-2 outing, with two RBI and two walks, only was part of the Wildcats’ offensive onslaught against Omaha.
K-State (14-20) drew first blood — quickly. The Wildcats plated three runs in the first frame. Will Brennan scored Littlejim with a sacrifice fly, and thanks to catcher Chris Ceballos’ RBI double and some help from an Omaha error, K-State took a 3-0 lead into the second inning.
That was enough to chase Omaha starter Jackson Gordon, who gave up two earned runs on two hits in his only inning of work.
K-State added to the lead an inning later, when Littlejim used the two-run blast to left center to give himself an even wider cushion with which to work.
“He gave me several fastballs,” Littlejim said, “and it just took me a couple to time it up. He left one up, and I took care of it.”
The end of K-State’s offensive barrage came in booming fashion. Right fielder Zach Kokoska and Brennan lifted back-to-back homers to right, giving the Wildcats a wide 7-1 lead and more than enough momentum to run away with a convincing lead.
It also gave Littlejim room to operate. He didn’t have to peek over his shoulder. The lead was safe.
“That always gives you confidence as a pitcher,” Littlejim said. “I love throwing with the lead. That’s always a big confidence boost.”
It rarely mattered who Omaha (20-7-1) pitched, either.
The Mavericks threw six pitchers out onto the mound, all of them for short one- and two-frame stints, but the Wildcats seldom had trouble getting ahold of them, even if they weren’t scoring in the process. K-State recorded hits on four of Omaha’s six pitchers.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats did little to wear out their bullpen. Sophomore Andrew Stratman relieved Littlejim in the seventh and pitched two innings, permitting just one run on one hit — a solo homer to Parker Smejkal on his first pitch of the evening — before yielding to freshman Eric Torres in the ninth.
Different pitcher, same result. Torres sat down Omaha in order in the ninth. He struck out two.
All with 14 mph wind, too.
“Tough day to pitch — that wind was really strong blowing out,” K-State coach Pete Hughes said. “You’ve got to have really good stuff to limit a good offensive team to what (the bullpen) did.”
In sum, K-State played one of its best games of the season. The issues with errors were nonexistent. The Wildcats plated seven runs for the second time in the last month, which in turn gave their bullpen, shaky in spots this season, all the wiggle room it needed.
The signs were all there — and Hughes noticed one that summed them all up.
“When you play a game in under two hours, it’s clean baseball,” said Hughes, whose club wrapped up the win in 1 hour, 59 minutes. “That means guys aren’t kicking the ball around. We’re making plays, we’re throwing strikes. It was good. It was as clean as it gets.”
The challenge for the Wildcats coming up: replicating it. K-State will visit No. 14 Texas this weekend for a three-game series, beginning Friday evening in Austin.
It’ll give K-State, whose only conference win thus far came March 31 over Texas Tech, an opportunity to climb the Big 12 standings in an otherwise drab season.
Wouldn’t hurt to get Littlejim going, either.
“It’s been a grind a little bit. There’s ups and downs,” Littlejim said. “You just keep working through it. The coaches keep confidence in me.”