Sam Tewes tips his cap to Wichita State loyalist

Sam Tewes grasps a baseball, checks the signal from his catcher and lines up the pitch.

Before winding up for his poetic release, he glimpses up at the brim of his cap, the letters LL are etched in sharpie, honoring Lloyd Phelps, one of the program’s most treasured fans.

Phelps, known by players and coaches as “Loyal Lloyd”, died in early December of a heart attack at the age of 66.

“It’s a small reminder to leave it all out there,” Tewes said. “He’s not here to watch us anymore, but if he were, what would you want him to see?”

Tewes holds this as a reminder to serve Lloyd Phelps by giving him the season he always wanted.

“It’s not for glam, not for glory; it stands for part of a bigger picture,” Tewes said.

He’ll tell you this is the season he’s always dreamed of — a vision 21 years in the making. And this reminder keeps him firmly grounded with a humble head and a heavy heart.

“It’s special to me because I was blessed with the talents and abilities to go out there,” Tewes said. “Every ability I have was given to me. I didn’t earn any of it.”

The former freshman All-American, Tewes eyes ready for his sophomore year at Wichita State. As the No. 33 college pitcher in the country listed by Baseball America, his 90-mph fastball is center-stage.

And this big opportunity all came to a screeching halt last March.

Enduring injury

In a home game against Central Michigan, Tewes ran out from the bullpen a determined weekend starter. Still riding with high emotions from his successful freshman campaign, everything seemed to be drifting in favor of the 6-foot-5 sophomore.

But after pitching four scoreless innings, the right-handed pitcher complained of soreness to his pitching shoulder.

Doctors would diagnose it as a mild case of inflammation. The training staff decided it would be in the best interest of Tewes to shut things down for the remainder of the season after a mere 22 innings on the mound.

“It really sucked,” Tewes said. “It was supposed to be a big year.”

Tewes was an experienced player the Shockers couldn’t afford to lose. With injuries looming the team recorded 33 losses.

“When he went down, it was devastating,” pitching coach Brent Kemnitz said.

Kemnitz looked at his clipboard with his lists cut short, the rotation brittle and inexperienced.

“There was a little experience last year,” Kemnitz said. “When (Tewes) went down, there was virtually none.”

Sitting on the bench, Tewes looked discouraged. The runs piling up on his teammates, he watched, his composure deteriorating.

“It was so tough sitting there in the dugout the whole time, wishing you could contribute,” Tewes said. “It takes a toll on you.”

Tewes watched his team’s success fall a step below the rest. The long wait on the bench made him question his own journey.

“I had trouble keeping a positive mindset through it all,” Tewes said. “You really never know if you’re going to come back to the same level of competition.”

A shot at redemption

Tewes, now fully recovered and healthy, is ready to the sprint from the bullpen once again.

The former freshman All-American continues to find accolades blossoming around his name, most recently voted to the preseason All Missouri Valley team.

“I feel blessed to be in the position I’m in,” Tewes said. “I’m healthy, and I’m ready to get after it.”

With all the accomplishments surrounding him, Tewes has more than enough recognition. But no accolades will satisfy his hunger he said.

“The rankings and labels will take care of themselves if I take care of what I need to do for this team,” he said. “If I don’t do my job when I’m called upon to pitch those [accolades] mean nothing.”

Though the recognition is far off his own radar, his coach has certainly taken special notice to the star product lighting up the bullpen.

“He’s a Friday night guy who can pitch for anyone in the country,” Butler said. “He’s a proven winner.”

Butler has seen the success and abilities of his poised starter plenty in the practice, but his skills are measurable on and off the mound.

“He does everything above the board,” Butler said.

Butler is polishing his pitching rotation, but, with no second-guessing, Tewes leads his list.

“His focus right now is to set the tone for the Shockers on Friday nights,” Butler said.

With poise and intellect, Tewes leads his teammates.

“He doesn’t need to say much,” teammate Cody Tyler said. “Sam can lead by his actions.”

Tewes is nearly set to take the mound on Tyler Field, a probable MLB talent; he passed up the offer to take a chance at the big leagues.

The Toronto Blue Jays drafted Tewes directly out of high school. Choosing an education and a chance to diversify his skills on the mound, he made the 280-mile journey south from his home in Lincoln, Nebraska, to Wichita.

A reason to win

Enduring a season of hardship, Tewes is focused on winning, although not for his own pleasure.

“[Butler] has shown me nothing but support, nothing but love and nothing but energy, pushing me towards my goals,” Tewes said. “He’s trying to make a name for himself now. He’s had our backs for two solid years now. Now we really need to win for him because he’s done everything for us.”

Tewes holds respect for those who have guided his journey. It’s a time to play and a time to win. And this time around, it’s more important than ever.

The journey is a step back in promising direction. But still, Tewes won’t look too far ahead. His eyes are instead focused to take the game one pitch at a time.

“He’s gifted. He’s talented,” Kemnitz said. “He just needs to go out and be Sam Tewes.”