If the Kansas University coaching staff can take solace in one thing heading into the final weekend of the 2009 regular season, it’s that their jobs should be relatively easy-going: No need to spend too much time devising inspirational pep talks or digging too deeply into the bag of motivational tricks.
On the eve of this weekend’s three-game series with No. 11 Kansas State — which kicks off tonight with a 6:30 matchup in Manhattan before moving back to Lawrence for games on Saturday and Sunday — Kansas’ players haven’t exactly forgotten what happened the last time these two teams took the field against each other.
“I thought about that (series) all offseason,” KU sophomore pitcher T.J. Walz said.
It was just a year ago, after all, that the Kansas wheels fell off in a season-ending series against the Wildcats, a three-day collection of mistakes, missed opportunities and tough breaks.
Entering the final weekend of the 2008 conference season, Kansas needed to win only one of three games against Kansas State — which had gone just 24-27 up to that point — in order to advance to the conference tournament (eight of the 10 Big 12 teams earn tournament bids).
From the start, things did not go particularly well for the Jayhawks. They lost, 5-0, on Friday night, committing three errors and going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position. The next day, they fell, 5-4, in Manhattan after giving up an eighth-inning run.
Still, heading into Sunday’s game, a victory would have propelled them into the postseason for the first time in two years, and after a Justin Ellrich home run gave the Jayhawks a 10-9 lead in the top of the ninth inning, they appeared to be well on their way.
Except then they weren’t.
The Wildcats scored a quick run to tie the game at 10. And after loading the bases with one out, Kansas pitcher Sam Freeman plunked the Wildcats’ Justin Bloxom to allow the game’s winning run to cross the plate.
As a result, the Wildcats earned the seventh seed in the Big 12 tournament, while the Jayhawks’ season came to an abrupt close, KU dropping to ninth and missing out on the conference tournament for the second straight season.
“If you would have told me that would have happened before the series,” KU coach Ritch Price said, “I never would have believed it.”
Which brings us back to this weekend’s series.
A postseason berth isn’t hanging in the balance this time around — both teams have locked up spots in the conference championship May 20-24 in Oklahoma City, and both have spent considerable time in the top 25 this season — but the implications are still very much there.
At the moment, just 11⁄2 games stand between the conference’s No. 2 team (Missouri) and its No. 6 team (Kansas), meaning that each of this weekend’s three games carries with it a sizable importance.
Based on how they perform in the season’s final series, the Jayhawks (35-18, 13-11) could end up anywhere from second in the conference to eighth.
“I’ve told our players that if we win this series, we’ll finish in the top four of our league, and that’s a tremendous accomplishment,” Price said. “And I think that almost guarantees you’ll be in the NCAA Tournament. So we’ve put ourselves in position to do something special; now we’ve got to finish the deal.”
Added sophomore third baseman Tony Thompson, “Everything we’ve been working for this year is kind of working toward this K-State series.”