Getting in was the goal, but the reward was not nearly as exhilarating as the road it traveled to reach it.
Thanks to a pair of victories against bitter rival Missouri in last week’s regular-season finale, Kansas University’s baseball team snagged a spot in this week’s Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City, which begins today at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark.
As a result, the Jayhawks (22-32 overall, 7-16 Big 12) earned a match-up with No. 2 seed Texas A&M (41-14, 16-8), the sixth-ranked team in the nation, which enters today’s 4 p.m. first pitch on a six-game winning streak.
The Aggies’ offense ranks third in the Big 12 with a .292 team batting average and scores 5.3 runs per game. Junior outfielder Tyler Naquin is second in the conference with a .373 batting average, with 15 doubles, six triples and 17 stolen bases this season. Senior first baseman Jacob House hit his team-leading eighth homer in last weekend’s Oklahoma State series and finished the regular season with 50 RBIs, 12 doubles and a team-best .481 slugging percentage.
Despite all of those stats and rankings staring down at them, the Jayhawks are treating this week with a nothing-to-lose attitude.
“We’ve been through a lot, especially this year,” senior third baseman Zac Elgie said of KU’s eight seniors. “And I think it’s fitting that we went to the Big 12 tournament our first two years here and we get to end here as well.”
Joining Elgie in taking their final shot at Big 12 tournament glory are everyday players Jake Marasco, Chris Manship and James Stanfield, along with pitchers Jordan Jakubov and Matt Kohorst and reserves Jason Brunansky and Taylor Hart.
Asked what type of legacy this year’s senior class would leave behind, Elgie pointed to his crew’s fun-loving spirit.
“We’re really happy-go-lucky people, and we love to play the game,” he said. “We’re always smiling, and even if things aren’t going well on the field, we’re still pretty upbeat, and I think that’s really helped us in the long run.”
Although the Jayhawks are decided underdogs in today’s opener, Elgie and company identified a few things that fell in their favor.
“I honestly think we have a pretty good chance,” Elgie said. “They’re not moving up their weekend pitchers to pitch against us, they’re throwing their mid-week guy. Obviously, he pitches for one of the top 10 teams in the nation, but he’s a freshman, and it’s his first time on this stage.”
That mid-week guy is right-hander Daniel Mengden, who owns a 2-3 record and a 3.29 ERA. As a team, A&M’s pitching staff led the Big 12 with a 2.78 ERA and held opponents to a .234 batting average.
Mengden did not start during the regular-season series in Lawrence — A&M won two of three — but fanned a pair of hitters in relief during KU’s 5-3 victory against the Aggies on April 15.
While A&M will dig deep for its starting pitcher, Kansas will go with its ace. Sophomore Frank Duncan (6-7, 2.81 ERA, 92 strikeouts, 31 walks) will start on the mound for the Jayhawks. Duncan held opponents to a .217 batting average this season, good for third-lowest in team history.
Kansas will meet either third-seeded Texas or sixth-seeded Missouri in its second game of the Big 12 tourney on Thursday. If KU defeats Texas A&M, it would play the winner of the Texas-Missouri game at 7:30 p.m., while a loss would force KU to play the loser of the Texas-Missouri match-up at 12:30 p.m. in an elimination game.
“We’re excited to play on the bigger stage and step up our game a little bit and leave it all out there,” Elgie said.