KU squanders chances in Big 12 opener

Kansas’ Brian Heere, left, is tagged out at home by Kansas State’s Rob Vaughn. The Wildcats beat KU, 5-4, Wednesday in the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City.

Kansas’ Brian Heere, left, is tagged out at home by Kansas State’s Rob Vaughn. The Wildcats beat KU, 5-4, Wednesday in the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

— Had the “runs” column on the Bricktown Ballpark scoreboard been broken or otherwise unserviceable Wednesday morning, the casual observer reasonably might have assumed that Kansas University was in the middle of a lopsided victory over fourth-seeded Kansas State on the first day of the Big 12 baseball tournament.

As it happened, however, the run function was not broken, and so it was not difficult for the crowd of 4,000 or so to see that Kansas, while outhitting the Wildcats by a sizeable margin, was having great difficulty translating those hits into runs.

“If you look at that scoreboard in the fifth inning, we’ve got 10 hits and one run — and that came on a home run,” said KU coach Ritch Price, whose team suffered a 5-4 loss to K-State to fall to 0-1 in pool play. “So, obviously, we had plenty of opportunities to score and didn’t take advantage of them.”

The fifth-seeded Jayhawks stranded 12 base-runners (compared to seven for K-State). Through the sixth inning, they had batted a dismal 2-for-14 with runners on. And despite shelling Wildcats starter Lance Hoge in a meeting earlier this season, using a patient plate approach to tag the senior left-hander for five runs in just two innings in a 9-3 victory, they lacked similar plate discipline this time around.

There were other problems, of course.

The team’s seven through nine hitters went a combined 1-for-10 with no RBIs, flailing wildly at pitches outside of the strike zone on a number of occasions.

And despite a reputation as a fairly sure-handed team defensively, KU made costly fielding miscues late — none bigger than an eighth-inning blunder by freshman center fielder Jason Brunansky.

It was his team’s inability to plate runners, however, that Price couldn’t seem to shake afterward.

And the examples were numerous:

l In the third inning, the Jayhawks had two runners on with two outs. Buck Afenir struck out to end the inning.

l In the fourth, they had two on and no out. The next three batters were promptly retired.

l In the sixth, James Stanfield and Brunansky slapped back-to-back singles to put two on with just one out. This was big. At the time, the Jayhawks led just 1-0. Here was a chance to break the game open, to pick up where they’d left off in a dominant 2-1 series victory over K-State the previous weekend.

The result? David Narodowski grounded back to the pitcher for an inning-ending double play.

And so it went for the Jayhawks, who, despite a quality outing from starter Shaeffer Hall (5 1/3 innings, six hits, three runs, five strikeouts), couldn’t overcome a number of squandered opportunities.

“If they punch across those runs, it makes it real tough,” said Kansas State coach Brad Hill, who elected to throw Hoge in an effort to give ace A.J. Morris an extra day’s rest. “... But it’s a game of momentum swings, and they didn’t quite get those momentum swings.”

It wasn’t that Kansas struggled from the plate. In their first Big 12 tournament game in three years, the team recorded at least one hit in every inning but the eighth and finished with its highest hit total — 15 — ever in a Big 12 tournament game.

It’s just that, once on base, players never seemed to reach the plate.

Still, in the bottom of the eighth inning, having battled back from a 3-1 deficit to pull ahead after Stanfield’s two-run single in the top of the seventh, the game was tied at 4.

And that’s when K-State catcher Rob Vaughn slapped a two-out line drive to center field.

Brunansky, KU’s center fielder, charged quickly and made a last-second dive in an attempt to make the catch. However, the ball slipped under his glove and bounced past him, allowing Kansas State’s Jordan Cruz to score from first for would prove to be the game-winning run.

A scoreless ninth from KU made it official.

“I actually think that what you saw today was the result of (us playing in) our first playoff game in three years,” Price said. “We had guys in situations that they’ve never been in before. We’ve got freshmen and sophomores playing in a AAA ballpark. And maybe they were in a little awe of the moment.”

While Kansas State appears to be in good shape to make a run at a spot in Sunday’s championship game — the Wildcats enter today’s game against eighth-seeded Baylor with a 1-0 record and with Big 12 pitcher of the year Morris still at their disposal — Kansas faces a slightly rockier path.

Today at 3 p.m., the Jayhawks will face top-seeded Texas — a team that appears to have improved greatly since being swept by Kansas in March — followed by a Saturday game against the Bears, who handed the Jayhawks two of their three home losses this season.

With last weekend’s regular-season-ending series victory over the Wildcats, the Jayhawks likely punched their ticket to an NCAA regional, although it’s possible they would need at least one victory in the conference tournament to cement the deal.

Following the disappointing nature of Wednesday’s loss, the team already had begun to turn its collective focus to this afternoon.

“We know that in the next couple games we’re going to get those things done,” said KU third baseman Tony Thompson, who was 4-for-5 with a run scored. “We just need to have the big hits at the right time.”