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A.J. The Ace
April 24, 2009
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By Wendell Barnhouse | wendell@big12sports.com
Big 12 Sports.com Correspondent

Based on how he performed last season, few could have expected A.J. Morris to become the ace for a surprising Kansas State team.

But as the 23rd-ranked Wildcats head to Austin for a Big 12 series against first-place Texas, Morris is not only Kansas State's top pitcher, he leads the NCAA in victories. The junior from Humble, Texas, is 9-0 and his 1.31 ERA is third in the nation.

As a redshirt freshman in 2007, Hill went 4-2 with a 3.78 ERA, holding opposing hitters to a .255 batting average. But as a sophomore, his ERA ballooned to 6.04 and he finished with a 4-4 record.

Coach Brad Hill said the difference from freshman to sophomore was simple.

"We sort of protected him his first season. Last season, he was pitching in a lot more demanding situations," Hill said. "It's hard to explain what transpires with some kids. Some figure it out, some don't. He's one who figured it out.

"The biggest factor is maturity. He moves on. After a walk, a hit, he has the ability to go to the next pitch. In the past, he'd give up a three or four run inning when something bad would happen."

After his disappointing sophomore season, Morris played in the West Coast Collegiate League. The experience helped him mentally and physically. What Morris did on his summer "vacation" was dedicate himself to weight training. He added 15 pounds of muscle and the daily dedication helped sharpen his mental approach.

"He needed to get away from home and his comfort zone, and going out west to play for the summer filled that need," Hill said. "Boy, he went out there and completely took off with that opportunity."

"We've been encouraging him to get stronger ever since he got here three years ago. He basically lived in the weight room last summer and now I think his velocity is better maintained later in the game."

Morris' added strength has helped his stamina. He can throw at full velocity (90-92 mph) for more innings.

And Big 12 hitters won't want to hear that he's planning to deploy another weapon in his arsenal.

"I need to start putting the changeup into effect," Morris told Rivals.com. "I have the pitch and threw it well last summer, but I have yet to get comfortable with it. I think I'm getting to the point where I'm comfortable with it, so we'll see how it goes."

Land rush
Based on his lack of offensive production, Kansas senior first baseman Preston Land hoped that by the end of his final season he could approach coach Ritch Price, shake hands and say, "Thanks for sticking with me."

After hitting .314 as a freshman, Land hit .206 as a sophomore and .221 last season. He went the first two months of this season without a home run but has hit three in KU's last five games. Wednesday night against Missouri at Kaufman Stadium in Kansas City, Land's three-run homer sparked the Jayhawks to a 7-3 victory. (The game didn't count in the Big 12 standings).

“That’s one of the things you hope as a coach is when you stick with somebody through adversity, that at some point in time that young man will contribute for you and you’ll be rewarded for your patience," Kansas coach Ritch Price told the Kansas City Star. “He’s got great talent. It’s nice to see him playing up to his ability.”

Extra bases
* David Narodowski was Kansas' cleanup hitter in seven of the first eight games of the season. That's noteworthy only because he's 5-foot-9 and 192 pounds. Narodowski failed to homer in the No. 4 spot and was moved to the leadoff spot. He was still without a dinger (in 149 at-bats) until he hit two homers in the Jayhawks' 11-2 victory over Baker Tuesday. “I’ve always had a few home runs every year five or six or seven at least,” Narodowski said. “It was just a slow year this year.”

* Baylor freshman pitcher Logan Verrett has been invited to participate in the USA Baseball National Team Trials. He is one of just 17 initial invitees and the only player from the Big 12 to draw an invite. Baylor had two players invited to the National Team trials last year - Shaver Hansen and Kendal Volz. Volz, a pitcher, made the team.

* Citizens in Stillwater and Waco who want to know when it will rain just need to check the Big 12 schedule for when Baylor and Oklahoma State are scheduled to play. Last weekend, the three-game series between the teams was reduced to two games when Sunday's game was cancelled because of rain in Stillwater. It's the third time since 2002 that a Bears-Cowboys series has been reduced to two games because of rain.

* Texas and Oklahoma played in front of 14,844 fans last Saturday and Sunday in Austin. It was the largest two-day regular-season crowd in the history of UFCU Disch-Falk Field and third-largest overall two-day crowd at the facility.

* During Saturday's game with Kansas State, Texas will retire Burt Hooton's No. 20. During his career (1969-71) Hooton was 35-3 with 386 strikeouts and 13 shutouts.

Inside the numbers
* Nebraska has lost 10 consecutive Big 12 games. This weekend against Kansas, the Huskers will try to avoid their fourth consecutive sweep by a Big 12 opponent.

* Oklahoma has defeated Wichita State twice this season; the cumulative score in the two games is 23-1.

* Baylor has lost four of its last five midweek non-conference games. The Bears lost to Southland Conference foes Sam Houston State and Texas State this week. Four of Baylor's seven non-conference losses have come to Southland Conference opponents.

* Kansas is 11th NCAA Division I baseball in fewest walks allowed per nine innings (2.78).

* Before first-inning error Wednesday night against Prairie View, Texas A&M had gone seven games and 263 fielding chances without committing an error.

* Texas' Austin Wood made his 100th career appearance over the weekend against Oklahoma. He joined Randy Boone (106), J. Brent Cox (106) and Huston Street (105) as the only pitchers in school history with 100 or more appearances.

* Texas has scored a total of 21 runs in its nine losses.

Infield chatter
Nebraska coach Mike Anderson:
"We're going to have to figure out a way to pitch. Unfortunately, I've been saying that for a few weeks. We're going to trying to create different combinations. We won't give up trying different things."

Texas Tech catcher Jeremy Mayo after the Red Raiders' two-game sweep of Nevada-Las Vegas heading into this weekend's crucial series at Missouri:
“Finally, we won games we’re supposed to win, games we have to win. We’ve got to keep doing that. We’ve gotten on a little roll now, so hopefully we can go to Missouri and take two, and maybe three.”

Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway after Texas swept the Sooners last weekend to take over first place in the Big 12:
“Adversity gets everyone’s attention. In a lot of ways, we had kind of lost track of the things that allowed to play well. I think everyone understands that now.”

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