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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Jayhawks show glimpse of power

The Kansas baseball team wrapped up its two-game series with North Dakota on Wednesday afternoon.

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Apparently, Tony Thompson had grown a bit tired of the locker-room ridicule bestowed upon him in recent days.

After failing to record a home run in their first six games this season — an unusually long drought for a program accustomed to piling up gaudy power numbers in recent years — Thompson and the rest of the Kansas University baseball team’s position players had begun to receive some good-natured ribbing, courtesy of the team’s pitchers, about their lack of batter’s-box brawn.

“We kept hearing about it from everybody,” Thompson said.

Wednesday afternoon at Hoglund Ballpark, however, the sophomore third baseman took it upon himself to bring the banter to a halt. Thompson’s three-run homer in the bottom of the first inning helped propel Kansas to its second straight victory, a 6-3 win over North Dakota, and marked a welcome end to an extended power outage that had struck the Jayhawks’ lineup.

“I think the fact that someone clutched up and hit one out of the ball park, that needs to happen,” KU coach Ritch Price said. “Whether it’s a different guy occasionally — it doesn’t have to be the same guy, obviously. But any time you can get a five-run lead like that, it allows your pitcher to go out there and throw strikes.”

That pitcher happened to be junior transfer Travis Blankenship, who Wednesday earned his first career Div. I victory after allowing just three hits and an unearned run in five innings.

Working with the luxury of a 5-0 lead after two innings, the left-handed Blankenship proved overwhelmingly efficient against a North Dakota lineup heavy with left-handed hitters. Of the 56 pitches he threw Wednesday, 41 went for strikes as the Jayhawks built a 6-1 lead before turning to the bullpen entering the sixth inning.

Senior closer Paul Smyth, meanwhile, a Brooks Wallace Award watch list selection who struggled uncharacteristically in two outings earlier this season, recorded his first save of the year after pitching a scoreless ninth.

If there was a cause for concern in Kansas’ victory, which pushes the team’s record to 4-3, it was a lack of opportunistic hitting. A day after leaving just three runners on base in an 8-2 victory over the Fighting Sioux (0-6), KU on Wednesday stranded seven — a number Price said will have to shrink if the small-ball-minded Jayhawks hope to remain competitive this season.

“We’re not physical enough with the bat to not be competitive every time there’s runners in scoring position,” the coach said. “I thought we had some really non-competitive at-bats where guys took some pitches that were in the hitting zone, and we were swinging uphill at balls ... and that’s the reason we had trouble scoring runs when we had the opportunities to do so.”

At the very least, though, the victory should offer Kansas’ hitters a temporary reprieve from the taunting they’ve endured throughout the early portion of the season.

“It was just a matter of time,” pitcher Paul Smyth said of the team’s first longball. “I’m sure that (Thompson) and Preston (Land) and Buck (Afenir) are going to start raking them in here pretty soon.”

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