LAWRENCE, Kan. – Kansas senior Kevin Kuntz scored the game-tying run in the eighth, then drove in the game-winning run in the ninth – both with two outs – as the Jayhawks walked off with a 6-5, series-clinching win at Hoglund Ballpark Saturday afternoon. The win marked KU’s fourth straight and completed the team’s collection of series wins over every Big 12 Conference foe from the state of Texas this season.
Kansas (29-18, 11-9 Big 12) was outhit 16-11, but found a way to strand 10 Baylor (25-22, 11-8 Big 12) base runners and take advantage of enough opportunities to earn its fifth walk-off win, helping ease the sting of last weekend’s conference series sweep at the hands of West Virginia.
Kuntz, who finished 2-for-4 with a sacrifice bunt, knocked his first hit of the game to open the eighth inning against Baylor’s Crayton Bare (5-2), then was bunted into scoring position by Michael Suiter. Bare got Alex DeLeon to strikeout after a lengthy at-bat for the second out of the frame, but Jordan Dreiling drove a pitch up the middle of the infield past a diving Jake Miller to plate Kuntz and even the score.
In the ninth inning, after KU reliever Jordan Piche’ (6-2) dropped his nation-leading ERA to 0.56, Kansas found itself facing two outs again but singles from Tucker Tharp and Justin Protacio kept the inning alive. Down 0-2 in the count, Kuntz drove a ball up the middle of the infield and Tharp scored the game winner before the Jayhawks celebrated on the field.
“When you string (singles) together like that in the ninth with two outs, they feel like they’re doubles in the gap and home runs,” Tharp said after the game. “Just to have our guys clutch up in the last inning and get behind Piche’ when he was down was huge. I thought he grinded it out until the end and so did the guys in the dugout.”
The Jayhawks played with fire all day long as sophomore start Wes Benjamin labored through five innings but held the Bears to three runs before leaving with a 4-3 lead. Baylor never found a way to put together a big inning, with single runs in five different frames, including the fifth when Benjamin used a couple fly outs – one a sac fly – to escape a bases loaded jam.
Baylor threatened with the bases loaded again in the eighth, after a leadoff single chased KU reliever Robert Kahana and the Bears got back-to-back bunt singles off Piche’. Unshaken, the junior closer got Nathan Orf to ground into a run-scoring double play – his first at-bat without reaching base in the game. Piche’ struck out No. 3 hitter Cal Towey to end the inning.
“We haven’t won many games like that – it seemed like we were one base hit away from disaster all game,” Kansas head coach Ritch Price said. “I look at the scoreboard and they have 16 hits and we managed to hold them to five single-digit innings. Literally, they had opportunities to score multiple runs in all those innings and somehow we found a way to get out of it and stayed in it until someone was able to do something special late.”
Kansas had an answer for nearly every Baylor score, with the Jayhawks plating runs in the bottom half of four of the five innings Baylor scored, including two in the second on a sacrifice fly from Dakota Smith and an RBI single by Ka’iana Eldredge.
Tharp finished the game 2-for-3 with two runs scored, and the Jayhawks got multiple hits from Protacio (2), Kuntz (2) and Dreiling (2) in the game.
Baylor was led by Orf’s 3-for-4, 2-runs-scored performance and got multiple hits from Towey (2), Grayson Porter (2), Duncan Wendel (2), Adam Toth (2) and Brett Doe (2). Bears starter Austin Stone allowed three runs – two earned – and six hits as he pitched into the seventh inning.
Kansas and Baylor meet in the series finale at Hoglund Ballpark at 1 p.m. Sunday, a game that will be televised on Kansas City’s Metro Sports. The Jayhawks will start junior right-hander Frank Duncan against Baylor’s Dillon Newman or Ryan Smith.