Call it small ball. Call it manufacturing runs. Call it opportunistic baseball.
Whatever you call it, the Kansas University baseball team will have a distinctly different look when it takes the field for the first time this season, during the Service Academy Classic Feb. 20-22 in Millington, Tenn.
With their Nos. 3, 4 and 5 hitters from last season off to the minor leagues — and without much power to replace them — the Jayhawks are in the process of undergoing a significant makeover on the eve of their 2009 season, one that will likely present a stark contrast to last year’s abundance of power.
“It’s a different team, totally,” said second baseman Robby Price during Thursday’s baseball media day. “We’re missing some guys that hit a lot of home runs and RBIs for us. So it’s a different style. Hopefully we can put the ball in play more often and cut down on the strikeouts.”
A year after John Allman, Ryne Price and Erik Morrison combined for 24 of the team’s 57 home runs and 147 of its 348 RBIs, providing a constant threat of power in KU’s lineup, the Jayhawks, like any team dealing with substantial losses, are attempting to play to their strengths.
For Kansas, that means replacing their big bats with players of significantly smaller stature, including Price, a 5-foot-11, 176-pounder who will bat third, and 5-foot-9, 192-pound shortstop David Narodowski, expected to bat fourth. The belief is that both can provide other resources — namely, speed and consistency at the plate — that will be integral in helping Kansas improving upon its 30-27 record in 2008.
“We’re definitely stressing the small-ball game a lot more,” said senior center fielder Nick Faunce, who batted .326 with 30 runs scored in 2008. “We realize we’re a smaller team, so we’ve got to utilize our speed a little differently. We’re really looking to take some bags, hit-and-run and play the game in a different style as opposed to our dip-and-drive mentality that we’ve had the past couple years.”
As coach Ritch Price points out, Kansas’ success this season will also depend largely on a young but seemingly talented group of pitchers. Last year, due partly to injury and partly to inexperience, the team’s starting pitching struggled with inconsistency. The Jayhawks finished the year ranked ninth in the Big 12 in team ERA, and with three pitchers from last year’s team having been selected in last year’s draft — along with injuries to promising left-handers Wally Marciel and Andy Marks — 2009 could pose similar problems.
The good news is that a crop of youngsters have showed flashes of promise since arriving on campus. Ritch Price said Thursday that freshman pitcher Lee Ridenhour has the best arm of any freshman he’s coached at KU, while sophomore T.J. Walz, who went 4-1 as a freshman last season, could start the year as KU’s No. 2 starter.
Whether that will hold much weight come March — when Kansas has series slated against Arizona State, Texas and Texas A&M;, each of which is rated in the top 10 nationally by multiple preseason publications — remains unclear.
In the meantime, players are taking advantage of an unusually mild Kansas winter (”We’ve practiced outside every day but one,” said closer Paul Smyth), and hoping they can prove true the old adage that bigger isn’t always better.
“It’ll be different,” said Robby Price, “but I think it might be a little more productive.”