Oklahoma City Well, this was certainly unexpected.
Entering the Big 12 Conference tournament, the Kansas University baseball team — a team whose regular-season exploits included a sweep of then-No. 1 Texas and a program-best fifth-place conference finish — arrived in Oklahoma City with sizable aspirations.
The Jayhawks left Oklahoma City, meanwhile, having suffered three straight losses, the most recent coming in the form of Saturday morning’s 8-4 loss to eighth-seeded Baylor — a setback that concluded a miserable week of baseball for the Jayhawks and raised questions about whether the team’s regular-season resume is enough to warrant an NCAA regional Tournament bid.
“This is one of the most unforgiving conferences in America,” Kansas coach Ritch Price said afterward. “If you can’t handle adversity during the course of a 56-game season, this league will bury you.”
And in Saturday’s loss to the Bears, the Jayhawks suffered their share of adversity.
Much like it had in its previous two games, losses to fourth-seeded Kansas State and top-seeded Texas, Kansas struggled to do the things that had propelled the team to a 37-19 regular-season record. KU starter Lee Ridenhour, a talented youngster in the team’s rotation, was knocked from the game after one inning. The team’s six through nine hitters combined to go a paltry 1-for-15. And to add injury to insult, second baseman Robby Price, the team’s No. 2 hitter, left the game in the top of the first with a left shoulder injury, sustained while making a diving play up the middle.
Not exactly a recipe for success.
With Kansas already trailing, 3-0, in the bottom of the second inning, Baylor shortstop Shaver Hansen hit a three-run home run — his fourth in four games against Kansas this season — to stake Baylor to an early 6-0 lead.
Of course, when your roster includes the conference’s top offensive player, as Kansas’ does, things are never quite as bad as they seem.
With the bases loaded in the top of the third inning, all-Big 12 third baseman Tony Thompson drove a Jon Ringenberg pitch well over the left-center field wall for a grand slam, breathing life into the Jayhawks dugout and cutting the Baylor lead to two, 6-4.
The Bears countered in the fourth, adding a run on a Hansen sacrifice fly that made the score 7-4. But Thompson would get one more shot to push Kansas back into the game, walking to the plate three innings later with two outs and runners at the corners.
Asked following the game whether he considered intentionally walking Thompson, given the results of his earlier at-bat, Baylor coach Steve Smith responded, “I considered walking him with the bases loaded (in the third).”
Instead, however, Smith brought in veteran reliever Kendal Volz to face Thompson, and the Jayhawks sophomore, who has been the conference’s most explosive offensive player throughout the season, came up just short, flying out to deep center field to end what would be the team’s best shot at a comeback.
“I got the pitch I wanted,” Thompson said afterward. “And I just missed a little bit. Sometimes that happens — you put a good swing on it and still get out.”
In all likelihood, Kansas’ recent struggles won’t keep the team from advancing to its first NCAA regional Tournament in three years. The Jayhawks, in the top 25 for much of the season, finished with sweeps of then-No. 1 Texas and No. 17 Oklahoma State and finished fifth overall in the ultra-competitive Big 12.
What’s less clear, however, is how the team will respond to what can accurately be described as its most trying stretch of the season.
Following Saturday’s game, players insisted they would have little trouble flushing the memories of a tournament gone wrong, citing the various times they’d overcome tough losses throughout the year.
“This team’s pretty resilient,” said Thompson. “We know that we can play with any team in the country, and this weekend’s not going to make that any different.”