Kansas has clinched third place in the Big 12 standings and finished Conference play by sweeping its final three series. Aaron Fitt of Baseball America writes about the Jayhawks’ impressive season thus far:
In 2011, when Kansas’ current seniors were freshmen, they finished the season by getting swept in their final three Big 12 series, tumbling from 9-9 to 9-18 in the league and finishing in last place.
So it was particularly sweet for that group of seniors to conclude their Big 12 careers by sweeping their final three series—at Baylor, vs. Texas Tech and vs. West Virginia. That third sweep against the Mountaineers vaulted Kansas into the Baseball America Top 25 for the first time since May of 2009. They are finished with conference play, locked into third place at 15-9—and locked into an at-large regional bid.
“It’s a great feeling,” Kansas coach Ritch Price said. “It’s like I told our guys when they pulled off the sweep, ‘You played your way in, man. You’re 15-9, nobody can catch us.’ It’s a great feeling to play your way in.”
Last year, the Jayhawks nearly played their way in via an automatic bid. They were swept in three of their final four regular-season series (including a nonconference series at Utah), but they rallied to go 3-0 in pool play at the conference tournament before falling in the title game to Oklahoma.
“We were 12-12 in the conference last year, we made the conference tournament title game, then we were picked to finish last going into this year,” Price said. “It upset the guys on our team. It’s amazing what a difference that makes. And we’re an older club. I’m so proud of how competitive our team has been, the way they grind, how they go about their business.”
In their Hoglund Park swan song, KU’s seniors went out with a bang Sunday. Senior Frank Duncan started and battled his way into the sixth inning, keeping the Jayhawks in the game. And senior captains Tucker Tharp and Ka’iana Eldredge combined for six two-out RBIs to power the offense to a 9-8 victory.
“The senior leadership on our team has been phenomenal,” Price said. “We played game 54 Sunday, and the energy and enthusiasm in our dugout was off the chart. These guys are having fun, they love their teammates. To see Tucker Tharp and Eldredge, it was awesome on Senior Day to see those two guys plays so big time.”
Center fielder Tharp and catcher Eldredge are pillars of a Kansas team that is rock-solid up the middle. Junior shortstop Justin Protacio is a 5-foot-5 gamer who plays solid defense and makes the offense go out of the leadoff spot, leading the team with 36 walks. And sophomore second baseman Colby Wright has emerged as another strong defender (.989 fielding percentage) who also provides offense out of the 2-hole (.331/.410/.444).
“Colby Wright started the year on the bench, and he’s improved more in one year than anybody we’ve had,” Price said. “He’s having a phenomenal year; he’s actually a physical guy, and he can really turn the double play. And Protacio, he’s a really good college player. He’s 5-foot-5, works counts, high OBP, solid defender. He’s been really good for us at short, on both sides.”
Tharp (six home runs), Connor McKay (nine homers) and Michael Suiter (.341/.433/.442, 3 HR, 10 RBI) provide punch in a lineup that relies heavily on small ball, giving the Jayhawks multiple ways to beat opponents.
On the mound, the Jayhawks had to overcome significant adversity when ace Wes Benjamin was lost to Tommy John surgery after seven starts. Kansas dealt with it by sliding closer Jordan Piche’ into the Friday starter role, leaving Robert Kahana (4-5, 2.94) on Saturday and Duncan (6-2, 2.37) on Sunday.
“I think any time you have a devastating injury where you lose your Friday night starter, we all recognize in the game that it could derail you and you need other guys to step up,” Price said. “It took us a few weeks to figure it out. When Wes was diagnosed with his ligament tear and had surgery, I felt the only way we could compete in our league was to put an experienced guy out there on Friday night. (Piche’) was a starter in junior college, so it’s not like he hasn’t done it before. His first start was awful, but he’s gotten better each and every week.”
Piche’ was primarily a fastball-slider guy in a relief role, but Price said he has developed a solid changeup to combat lefthanded hitters as a starter, and he’s been able to maintain his 90-92 mph velocity throughout games. The other two starters also have quality arms; Price said Kahana works at 91-94 mph and flashes a very good slider at times, but his command isn’t as consistent as the other two. Duncan holds 90-91 velocity deep into games and throws strikes with four solid pitches.
The emergence of freshman Stephen Villines (2-2, 1.59, 8 saves) at the back of the bullpen was crucial, enabling Piche’ to move into a starting role.
“He’s a really interesting guy, came from a really good program in SoCal, was overlooked out of high school,” Price said of Villines. “He’s a sidearm/submarine guy. After watching the CWD, watching the young man from UCLA (David Berg) who can change the menu, when I saw the video (of Villines) I was really intrigued. He’s got Southern California swagger, he just goes out there and pounds the strike zone. He was a non-scholarship guy, and he’s earned a scholarship.”
Price pointed out that Piche’ and Duncan were also recruited as non-scholarship players, and they went on to become key pieces of a team that will soon be on its way to regionals for the first time since ’09. It’s a testament to the value of hard work and perseverance—and these Jayhawks have no shortage of those qualities.