Jayhawks Enter Big 12 Home Stretch Against Baylor
LAWRENCE, Kan. –Kansas didn’t allow a run in a pair of midweek games while bouncing back from a tough Big 12 weekend in West Virginia, and the Jayhawks will look to keep the home stand success rolling along when the team resumes league play against Baylor at Hoglund Ballpark. The Jayhawks, with an even 9-9 mark in league games after dropping three one-run contests on the road to WVU, open play against the second-place team in the Big 12 Conference standings at 6 p.m. Friday night with senior RHP Thomas Taylor (4-1, 2.34) taking the mound against Bear’s senior RHP Max Garner (3-4, 3.21).
Friday will mark KU baseball’s Salute to Service Day, with all firefighters, police officers and military personnel getting in the gates for just $3. Samantha Casmus, whose father is deployed in Afghanistan, will throw out the first pitch and the National Anthem will be performed by Julian McCafferty, an Air Force ROTC cadet. On Saturday, the Jayhawks will celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the 1993 College World Series team with former players and coaches returning to Lawrence for a reunion and in-game recognition.
ON THE AIR: With just three weekends – two for Kansas – remaining in Big 12 Conference regular season play, the Baylor series offers one of the few remaining chances for the Jayhawks to make up ground and position themselves for both the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments. The pivotal series can be heard in Lawrence on KLWN (1320 AM) and AT&T Jayhawk All-Access, with veteran play-by-play man Tom Hedrick and Aaron Berlin calling the action from Hoglund Ballpark. Sunday’s finale will be televised in the area by Metro Sports with action being called by Nicholas McCabe (play-by-play) and two-time MLB All-Star and former Kansas City Royals great Willie Wilson (analyst).
SERIES HISTORY: The Bears hold a 45-10 advantage over Kansas in the all-time series, including four straight. Kansas won the last series in Lawrence, 2-1, to open the month of April in 2011. Kansas is 7-17 against Baylor at home and has performed a little better against the Bears over the last three seasons, winning four of 10 games played since the start of 2010. Baylor swept the series in Waco, Texas, last season with 10-2, 9-0 and 8-6 (8 inn.) decisions.
ABOUT THE JAYHAWKS: Ignore the win-loss record and over the last six games the Jayhawk pitching staff has resembled the National League All-Stars, allowing just four earned runs in 56.2 innings for a 0.64 staff ERA and limiting opposing batters to a .151 average. For half of those contests however, the opposing staff has been just as good and Kansas dropped three one-run contests at West Virginia before bouncing back with a 1-0 extra-inning win against Missouri Valley Conference power Wichita State and an 8-0 shutout of Baker in midweek play. Kansas, which was as high as No. 2 in the Big 12 standings before the skid, has an opportunity to play six games against teams ranked higher on the league leaderboard over the next two weekends and will rely on its arms to carry it again while waiting for the bats to come around in Big 12 play.
Kansas has relied on pitching, defense and small ball this season while turning some heads in the Big 12 Conference race after being picked to finish eighth but will need a timely hit or two to climb back to the top of the standings. Entering the weekend, Kansas was fifth in the conference in both overall batting (.272) and ERA (3.32), but has seen those numbers dip in Big 12 action. In Big 12 games only, Kansas is ninth in batting (.230) and seventh in ERA (4.29), but the Jayhawks have found a way to grind out a 9-9 (.500) record with series wins over pre-season league favorite TCU, No. 19 Oklahoma State, Texas and on the road at Texas Tech. If Kansas continues to execute and the hits start coming, they could have an even more surprising finish to the season.
Senior RHP Thomas Taylor will start for Kansas Friday night and has been the anchor of the starting rotation with a 4-1 record and 2.34 ERA. Taylor went toe-to-toe with one of the hottest pitchers in the nation, Harrison Musgrave, last Friday night at West Virginia and limited the Mountaineers to just one run and six hits in 7.1 innings. At the back end of the staff, Kansas has one of the best in National Stopper of the Year candidate Jordan Piché (Jr., RHP). The Jayhawk closer is 5-2 with a nation-leading 0.60 ERA in 21 appearances. He shares the conference lead with eight saves and has 32 strikeouts and just seven walks in 45.1 innings.
While a number of Kansas hitters have seen a small swoon in recent weeks, senior C/1B Alex DeLeon seems to be getting better with every pitch he sees. DeLeon leads KU with a .338 batting average, 16 doubles and seven home runs – three of which he’s hit in the last six games. DeLeon nearly added a grand slam against Wichita State to his recent feats of strength, but the ball was correctly ruled foul after the runners crossed the plate and celebrated in the dugout. Michael Suiter is second on the team with a .333 batting average and Kevin Kuntz is hitting over .300 at .310. Justin Protacio has been a menace to opposing starter’s pitch counts with 35 walks drawn and a persistent presence on the base paths with a team-best .423 on-base percentage.
LAST TIME OUT: A two-run shot off the bat of Alex DeLeon easily cleared the centerfield wall and sealed a late offensive surge that powered Kansas past Baker, 8-0, at Hoglund Ballpark Wednesday night, helping Kansas sweep a pair of midweek contests with Wichita State and Baker. Tuesday night, Kansas shutout Wichita State for 11 innings before a walk-off single through the left side of the infield by Dakota Smith gave the Jayhawks the victory.
SCOUTING THE BEARS: Baylor swept Big 12 neighbor Texas for the first time since 2005 last weekend to climb into second place in the league race at 11-6, mere percentage points behind conference-leader Oklahoma (10-5). The Bears own a 25-20 mark overall but are playing their best baseball of the season while winning five in a row, after wrapping midweek wins against Dallas Baptist and Texas Arlington around the series with the Longhorns.
Overall, the Bears are right behind the Jayhawks in both batting and pitching at sixth in the league with marks of .268 and 3.38. Baylor’s lineup features one of the best hitters in the Big 12 Conference in Nathan Orf. The senior outfielder has a .389 batting average – second highest in the Big 12 – and a .481 on-base percentage. The Bears don’t hit many home runs but Grayson Porter (5) and Cal Towey (4) have the ability to make a pitcher pay for a mistake with home runs.
Like Kansas, the Bears have a tough arm in the bullpen with Crayton Bare posting a 5-1 record and 2.05 ERA in 23 appearances. The senior lefty has fanned 47 batters in 44.0 innings and has four of Baylor’s nine saves. The other five saves belong to Ryan Smith, who could start Sunday’s game. Max Garner will face off with KU’s Taylor in game one. He’s an innings eater with 70.0 pitched in 12 appearances, 11 as a starter.
KANSAS PITCHERS LOVE GOOSE EGGS: Kansas logged back-to-back shutouts this week against Wichita State (1-0) and Baker (8-0) Tuesday and Wednesday nights, respectively. It was the first time Kansas logged back-to-back shutouts since the 2010 season when KU dispatched NAIA foes St. Mary (10-0) and Tabor (15-0) March 9-10. This week’s shutouts moved Kansas to eight total on the year, one short of the school record (9) for shutouts in a season set in 1978. The eight shutouts tie this year’s team with the 1976 team for second place on the single-season list. Senior RHP Thomas Taylor owns KU’s only individual shutout, with 11 other pitchers owning part of the seven other team shutouts. Relievers Drew Morovick and Junior Mustain have pitched in half of the shutouts.
RALLY SQUIRREL: Kansas RHP Robert Kahana was so effective in his start against Wichita State Tuesday night, the most memorable offensive moment for the Shockers may have been when Tyler Baker tracked down a rogue squirrel in his helmet near second base in the top of the fourth, drawing cheers from the crowd as he raced the critter off the field down the left field line. The squirrel, or another one of his brethren, made another appearance later in the contest but never crossed the foul line. Footage of the (hopefully non-)rabid-furry fan made MLB Network’s Intentional Talk, in addition to a number of morning newscasts throughout North America, and was mentioned on FoxSports.com. Overshadowed a bit by the animal tricks was Kahana’s career-best five strikeouts in a career-high 8.0 innings pitched. The sophomore from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, adjusted his grip on the ball prior to the outing and limited the MVC co-leader to just five hits.
BONUS BASEBALL: The Jayhawks have battled poor weather conditions all spring and the coaching staff has been busy trying to add games in the midweek to give players opportunities to get reps. Kansas added more than half a game just by playing extra innings in two games last week, combining for 23 innings in back-to-back extended contests against West Virginia (12) and Wichita State (11). Kansas dropped the series finale to West Virginia, 1-0, Sunday before walking off with a 1-0 win against Wichita State Tuesday night. Kansas’ last time with back-to-back extra innings contests was Feb. 20-22, 2011, when the Jayhawks beat No. 1 TCU, 4-3 in 14 innings before losing a 4-3 decision to Creighton two days later in 10 innings.
ONE-HIT WONDERS: Senior RHP Tanner Poppe was nearly unhittable in an 8-0 win over Baker Wednesday night. Poppe pitched a season-best 7.0 innings and matched his season-high with seven strikeouts while limiting the Wildcats to just one hit. Poppe was perfect through three innings before Brett Lechien singled to lead off the fourth. Junior Mustain, Colin Toalson and Jordan Luvisi combined for two innings of perfect relief and joined Poppe in throwing a combined one-hitter. It was the first KU one-hitter in more than a year, matching Thomas Taylor, Frank Duncan and Colton Murray vs. Missouri, April 6, 2011.
PICHÉ UP FOR STOPPER OF THE YEAR HONORS: Junior RHP Jordan Piché was honored by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers’ Association (NCBWA) when he was named to the National Stopper of the Year Mid-Season Watch List. Piché was one of 51 relief pitchers named to the Watch List. The junior righty has a nation-leading 0.60 ERA in 43.1 innings. Piché is tied for tops in the Big 12 with eight saves in 10 chances and has allowed just three earned runs in 21 relief appearances. He has pitched extremely well in pressure situations, holding opponents to a .149 batting average (10-for-67) with men on base and a .182 average (10-for-55) with two outs in an inning