Amid the euphoria of back-to-back pastings of Kansas State at Hoglund Ballpark that ended the Kansas University baseball team’s season, an undercurrent of worry swept through the seats.
Did Kansas empty its holster in winning a mercy-rule game? Were they setting themselves up for an emotional letdown in the event of a loss to K-State in the opening game of the Big 12 tournament? The answers, it turned out, were yes and yes.
The lopsided victories that put the finishing touches on a 25-3 record in home games in a sense turned up the pressure on a team that lacked postseason experience. It showed and KU went 0-3 in Oklahoma City. The Jayhawks earned a bid in the NCAA Tournament’s 64-team field anyway, breaking the tension. If Kansas doesn’t emerge from the four-team (North Carolina, Coastal Carolina, Dartmouth) subregional that gets under way Friday in Chapel Hill, N.C., nerves won’t be the cause.
Not many expect Kansas to be among the 16 teams standing by the end of the day Monday, so the pressure rests elsewhere.
“I think we’ve seen all year that when we get knocked down a little bit we’re back on our feet real quick,” senior catcher Buck Afenir said. “I feel confident. I think we’re going to come back and play well. I think we’ll loosen up and play like we did (at the end of the regular season).”
So much will depend on how well KU’s three starting pitchers — right-handers T.J. Walz and Lee Ridenhour and lefty Shaeffer Hall — hit their spots.
Recently, Ridenhour has the look of a pitcher who might be going through a dead-arm phase. Such things appear without warning and can vanish just as quickly. Alarmed that the freshman couldn’t push the radar gun past 84 mph, KU coach Ritch Price gave him the quick hook in his Big 12 tournament start.
Walz got too many pitches up, which often can be a sign of being too hyped for a start.
“He might have had a little nerves going,” Afenir said. “I expect him to bounce back and throw a great game.”
Hall doesn’t need to repeat his best start of the season. He pitched a no-hitter against Air Force on Feb. 20. The baseball from the final out rests inside a case, proudly displayed in his parents’ living room in Lee’s Summit, Mo.
According to Afenir, the three pitchers who hold the key to KU’s postseason fortunes have different approaches to getting ready for games.
“T.J. usually takes a nap,” Afenir said. “You can go in the locker room and see the guy sleeping. Lee doesn’t get dressed until about game time. Shaeffer, I’m not sure what he does, but he’s a lefty so it’s got to be something goofy.”
Countered Hall: “How would he know? He barely gets down to the bullpen when I’m warming up, stays down there for 10 or 15 pitches and then he leaves me and gets ready for his first at-bat. He doesn’t even know what I have.”
Whatever his approach at the plate, Afenir needs to keep doing it. He has played in 54 games, exactly one third of a major league season. He’s batting .340 with nine home runs and 60 RBIs. Triple his production numbers and that works out to 27 homers and 180 RBIs.
It was a loose, confident bunch that headed for North Carolina, but will the Jayhawks have enough pitching?