After jumping out to a 12-1 start and playing up-and-down baseball throughout March and early April, the Kansas University baseball team found itself in a tough spot heading into the final weeks of Big 12 conference play.
Needing every win they could muster to keep postseason hopes alive, the Jayhawks were swept at Oklahoma State in mid-April and fell to a season-worst four games above .500. Then came a ninth-inning collapse at home against Missouri State three days later.
All they’ve done since is rip off seven consecutive victories, including back-to-back conference sweeps for the first time since 1994. Just like that, the Jayhawks (30-20 overall, 12-9 Big 12) went from limping to the finish to playing some of the best baseball in the country.
“I’ve been really proud of how competitive this team has been all year and how resilient they’ve been,” KU coach Ritch Price said.
The 12th-year KU coach attributed the club’s never-say-die demeanor to its five seniors — outfielder Tucker Tharp, catchers Tom Hougland and Ka’iana Eldredge and starting pitchers Frank Duncan and Jordan Piche’.
“The great thing about the seniors is they lead by example, they grind every day and they prepare,” Price said. “It’s been a phenomenal bounce back by those young men.”
Never was that work ethic more evident than during the past 10 days, when the Jayhawks responded to the massive letdown with seven victories over perennial powers Baylor, Wichita State and Texas Tech. Four of the seven wins came on the road. All of them felt like gold since the Jayhawks were the preseason pick to finish dead last in the Big 12. They now sit alone in third place with three games to play.
“To a point, it gets a little old, because I feel like we’re always picked to finish last,” Duncan said Sunday after tossing a complete game to sweep Texas Tech. “But it never fazes us and it’s always like, ‘Thanks for adding that extra (motivation).’”
Price said he did not address the preseason ranking with his team. For a guy who has been coaching the game for nearly three decades, it meant very little. But he did not mind one bit that his team paid attention to it.
“The players took it personal,” Price said. “Especially (because) we were 12-12 in the conference last season and got to the championship game of the Big 12 tournament. They felt they had been completely disrespected.”
Today, victories, not preseason rankings, drive the Jayhawks, who elevated their RPI from the high 60s to 36th with back-to-back sweeps of Baylor and Texas Tech. Many believe the program’s fifth trip to the NCAA Tournament is right around the corner.
“We’re playing really good baseball right now,” Duncan said. “For whatever reason, the last couple years, we’ve always found ourselves playing our best baseball late in the season, and we’re continuing that trend right now.”
Added Price after last Sunday’s victory: “One of the great things about this club is they’re having fun. They’re having fun before the game, they’re having fun in the dugout and in the locker room and you can tell. It was Game 50 today and these guys are still in love with playing.”
The Jayhawks play a rematch with Missouri State on the road Wednesday before closing out Big 12 play at home this weekend with a three-game series against West Virginia, beginning at 6 p.m. Friday.
Big 12 Baseball Standings (as of May 6, 2014)
Oklahoma State 13-5 (35-13)
TCU 13-5 (34-13)
Kansas 12-9 (30-20)
West Virginia 9-8 (26-17)
Texas 11-10 (34-15)
Texas Tech 11-10 (36-16)
Baylor 7-13 (22-27)
Oklahoma 6-12 (26-23)
Kansas State 4-14 (23-25)