The June amateur free agent baseball draft is just 2 1/2 weeks away, so the 26 scouts aiming radar guns from several rows behind home plate at Hoglund Ballpark weren’t local bird dogs trying to get lucky by identifying a sleeper.
The place was crawling with scouting directors and national cross-checkers taking one more look at a couple of big-timing hitting prospects from Oklahoma and both starting pitchers.
The prospects showed extremely well for them, and oh by the way, the crowd was treated to one highly entertaining college baseball game.
Left for dead heading into the bottom of the ninth, Kansas scored four runs to tie it and defeated Oklahoma in the 10th, 6-5, on James Cosentino’s one-out, full-count home run over the right-field fence, triggering the second eruption in as many innings in the home dugout.
Luke Bakula, who had entered the game in the eighth inning as a pinch runner, tied the score 5-5 with a two-run homer to left-center with two outs in the ninth. Earlier in the inning, Brett Vosik drove in two runs with a single up the middle.
The final score was not one anybody could have guessed after watching a pair of right-handed major league prospects lock in a riveting pitching duel for seven innings. Oklahoma’s Jake Irvin and KU’s Jackson Goddard were at their sharpest, each giving way to their bullpens after seven innings with the score 1-1.
Irvin allowed three hits, walked two and struck out nine. Goddard allowed six hits, walked four and struck out 11.
The decision was out of their talented right arms and on the bullpens to make sure their quality work was not for naught.
Oklahoma had taken a 5-1 lead with four two-out runs in the top of the ninth, an inning that reliever Ryan Cyr and many in the stands thought he had put up a zero with a called third strike for the final out. Oklahoma leadoff man Cade Harris didn’t offer at Cyr’s back-door slider, executed precisely as Cyr intended. Cyr reflexively bounded off the mound, taking a step toward the dugout, fueled by adrenaline. To his shock, he didn’t get the strike call.
The prospect of having to get anybody at the top of Oklahoma’s lineup out once is challenging enough, but twice? Harris made the most of his second chance and seared a double to right field to plate the go-ahead run. Brandon Zaragoza followed with a walk, bringing to the plate one of college baseball’s best hitters.
A more apt name for Steele Walker, the Sooners’ No. 3 hitter, might be Steele Strutter because he doesn’t so much walk to the plate as he struts. The right fielder certainly has earned that strut with the quick, powerful bat he used to hit his 12th and 13th home runs of the season Thursday in the opener of a three-game series at The Hog.
He packs so much power into his 5-foot-11, 190-pound frame. Both of his home runs were tape-measure shots, the first off Goddard in the third. It soared above the trees beyond right field and landed in the parking lot. Walker stood and watched, frozen by his admiration for his prodigious shot.
“One of my friends just texted me talking about how far he hit it off of me,” Goddard said. “He’s really, really good hitter, and honestly, he’s got the best hands of anybody I’ve seen this year. He’s probably the best hitter I’ve seen all year.”
A projected first-round pick, Walker’s night was far from finished. He singled to right in the fifth and in the ninth pumped OU’s lead to 5-1 with his three-run shot off Cyr. This one traveled over the camera stand and into the trees behind the 400 sign just to the left of straight-away center.
Nobody could have guessed Kansas had any shot at coming back at that point or certainly two batters later. Cyr drilled Oklahoma’s quarterback and center fielder, Kyler Murray, a two-sport pro prospect, in the back and then surrendered a single, spelling an end to the hard-throwing right-handers.
Jonah Ulane pitched Kansas out of the inning with a strikeout that was much bigger than anybody could have guessed at the time.
Bakula’s trips to the plate aren’t studied as closely as Walker’s but he has a knack for timely hits off the bench, none more timely than Thursday’s. His 46th at bat of the season lasted just two pitches, the second an 0-1 slider that he drilled for his first home run of the season.
Bakula suffered so many shoulder injuries in high school that he decided to give up baseball and enrolled at KU as a student. He said he missed the game too much and talked to coach Ritch Price about what it would take to earn a spot on the team. Price suggested he go to junior college, so he did for two years and returned to Kansas for two years. He’s batting .326.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been a part of big moment like that,” Bakula said.
He tied it so that Cosentino could win it. Cosentino left a rough night behind him in the dugout when he walked to the plate in the 10th. He was 0 for 4 with three strikeouts.
“We had some struggles going through the game, but we never gave up,” Cosentino said. “We were always up in the dugout. We always knew we were going to win.”
The improbable comeback left Goddard thinking about the possibility of the season going the way the game did with the best saved for the end.
“We’ve been through some tough stretches this year, but for something like that to happen at this time of the year with us on the brink of the postseason, I think that could potentially breathe some new life into this team and get us going,” Goddard said.