Ritch Price’s Kansas University baseball team is officially out of desperation mode.
Coming in on a five-game losing streak and 13-game winless streak in Big 12 play dating back to last season, the Jayhawks pieced together a 5-2 victory over Texas Tech Saturday at Hoglund Ballpark.
“We really needed a win about as bad as any team I’ve coached since I’ve been here,” the ninth-year KU coach said following the Jayhawks’ first conference victory of the season. “I think what I’m most pleased with was it was almost a complete victory.”
Leading the charge for KU (11-15 overall, 1-4 Big 12) was freshman left-handed pitcher Wes Benjamin, who reached a new career mark for strikeouts in a game — seven — by fanning Brennan Moore in the top of the sixth to cap a three-up, three-down inning. The 6-foot-2 hurler out of St. Charles, Ill., then increased his personal record to eight strikeouts by getting Jamodrick McGruder looking in the seventh.
Benjamin said he had been working on his off-speed stuff and has tried to “get a little more crafty” on the mound. After surrendering just six hits and three walks in seven innings of work, the freshman pitcher credited KU’s defense against Texas Tech (16-12, 2-6).
“It’s a confidence booster when you’ve got that defense behind you,” Benjamin said. “You don’t have to worry about throwing pitches in different spots.”
Jayhawks freshman center fielder Dakota Smith produced a pair of game-changing plays in the outfield. He sprinted to the right-field gap to snag a potentially dangerous drive off the bat of Tech’s Scott LeJeune in the top of the third. Then, in the fourth, when Red Raiders pinch hitter Stephen Hagen hammered a line drive to the left-field gap, the fleet-footed Smith got to the warning track to thwart an extra-base hit and record the second out of the inning.
Said Price of the freshman from Leavenworth: “He took two runs off the board.”
Smith delivered at the plate, too. Following back-to-back base hits by Connor McKay and Jake Marasco to open the bottom of the fourth, KU third baseman Jordan Dreiling moved the runners over with a sacrifice bunt, and Smith drove in McKay with a ground-out to shortstop. Marasco, who moved to third on the grounder, then scored on a wild pitch by Red Raiders starter John Neely, extending KU’s lead to 4-1.
Later, in the bottom of the sixth, Smith busted out of an 0-for-15 hitless slump that dated back to March 9 with a double off the left-field wall.
KU had been struggling, Smith admitted, and the Jayhawks were elated to get a victory.
“We just did a great job,” Smith said. “All of our games have been close lately, so it was good to finally get through.”
Kevin Kuntz led off the bottom of the fifth with a single down the right-field line that put him on base in 23 of the 26 Kansas games this season. He later scored on the Jayhawks’ first extra-base hit of the afternoon, an RBI-double down the right-field line by designated hitter Chris Manship that extended KU’s advantage to 5-2.
Price was glad to see the Kansas bullpen seal the much needed victory. Freshman Robert Kahana retired Texas Tech in order in the eighth and junior Tanner Poppe earned a save in the ninth.
“I really like our club,” Price said. “I think as soon as our young guys take that next step we’ll be really competitive. We’re close. I think that’s what they’re most frustrated about. I haven’t been able to get this team to overachieve yet.”
The Red Raiders and Jayhawks conclude their series at 1 p.m. today.
Said Benjamin: “Now if we can come back (today) and get a win, we’ll get over the hump.”