It didn’t go unnoticed in the Kansas University baseball locker room when the Big 12 coaches picked the Jayhawks ninth — dead last — in the conference’s 2014 preseason poll.
“I can tell you the players have already posted it and put it on a wall,” KU coach Ritch Price said Tuesday at the team’s media day. “I think that’s the best motivation that could’ve happened.”
Although Kansas went 34-25 in 2013, finished sixth in the league in the regular season and advanced to the championship game of the Big 12 tournament, the Jayhawks didn’t necessarily expect the rest of the league to take notice or suddenly change the outside perception of the program.
“From a disrespect standpoint, I think there was definitely some thrown our way a little bit,” Price said. “I also think that’s the reality of baseball in Kansas. You’ve got traditional national powers (in the Big 12) that have been to the College World Series or won national championships. I think every year the Texas schools vote for the Texas schools, the Oklahoma schools won’t vote for the Texas schools because of the rivalries they have. It’s a really interesting poll that happens every season.”
The Jayhawks think they have the pieces to prove the rest of the conference wrong, with returning weekend starting pitchers Wes Benjamin (4-6, 4.40 ERA in 2013) and Frank Duncan (4-6, 4.20 ERA), 2013 All-Big 12 first-team closer Jordan Piché (12 saves, 1.68 ERA) and All-Big 12 second-team outfielder Michael Suiter (.309 average, 29 RBIs). Five other starting position players also return: catcher Ka’iana Eldredge, infielder Justin Protacio, and outfielders Connor McKay, Dakota Smith and Tucker Tharp.
Price said if his players continue in their business-like approaches to preparation, they should be able to win 35 games this season and put themselves in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament berth — something Kansas hasn’t achieved since 2009.
A key to that goal, the 12th-year KU coach added, will be junior pitcher Benjamin, projected as a third- to seventh-round draft pick this year.
“If we’re gonna make the NCAA Tournament, he’s gotta win 10 games on Friday nights,” Price said of Benjamin, the staff’s only left-hander. “So that’s his goal, and if he gets that done, this team will accomplish its goals, as well.”
Junior catcher Eldredge said the experience of Benjamin and fellow hurlers senior Piché, senior Duncan and junior Robert Kahana (5-1, 3.08 ERA) make his job easy. The pitching staff also gives the Jayhawks confidence in their belief they can make the NCAA Tournament.
“We see guys in our backyard, in Manhattan, that got all the way to a super regional,” Eldredge said of a 2013 Kansas State team voted the preseason favorite this year, “and we feel like we can do the same thing. That’s just the mentality that our guys have in the locker room.”
Piché, the Big 12’s Newcomer of the Year in 2013 as a transfer from Indian Hills Community College, reiterated the Jayhawks expect big things this spring, and none of them care if outsiders are overlooking them.
“There might be a lack of respect, but for us, being the underdogs is a lot of fun,” the 6-foot right-handed closer said. “We feel like we’re a team that can go out there and beat anybody. We did that last year.”
KU opens its season on Friday with a four-game series against BYU, in Peoria, Ariz.