Sometimes youth is a bona fide excuse for a team falling short of its goal. Sometimes a young roster translates to a bright future. Sometimes it doesn’t because young doesn’t necessarily mean talented.
In the case of a Kansas baseball team that fell shy of NCAA tournament worthiness, the young talent on hand does appear to give the Jayhawks a shot at putting together back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, starting in 2018.
Unless shortstop Matt McLaughlin is drafted high enough and offered enough money to bypass his senior year, KU will return its entire starting lineup, including all three weekend starting pitchers.
Leadoff man/center fielder Rudy Karre and second baseman James Cosentino make a nice one-two punch at the top of a lineup that could use a power hitter added to the middle of the lineup.
Kansas coach Ritch Price has drawn criticism at times for not recruiting enough players from Kansas, generally having fewer in-state players than the state’s other two Div. I baseball programs.
That argument would hold more water if Kansas State and Wichita State were outperforming KU, but neither program has done so in recent seasons.
In the past four years, Kansas has a 40-54 record in Big 12 play, Kansas State a 31-65 mark. Advantage KU. Over the same period, KU’s average RPI has been 26 spots higher than that of former powerhouse Wichita State . This past season, Kansas finished with an RPI of 61. Kansas State checked in at 95, Wichita State at 146.
The goal is not to be the best team in the state of Kansas, rather to gain an invitation to the NCAA tournament. Kansas has failed in that regard for three consecutive seasons. K-State and Wichita State each have missed the past four tournaments.
Some believe recruiting more Kansas players will put Price on the road to better success, but nobody is calling for the Wildcats or Shockers to take that path. If anything, both schools appear to be expanding their recruiting horizons.
Baseball recruiting isn’t tracked with the same fervor as football and basketball, but there is at least one website that does a nice job of keeping up on it.
Perfectgame.org lists 10 high school baseball players from the state of Kansas who have committed to Div. I baseball programs. Kansas leads the way with three, followed by Arkansas and Kansas State with two apiece and three schools (Arkansas-Little Rock, Kentucky and Missouri) have received one pledge from Kansas high school baseball players.
Kansas landed state Gatorade Player of the Year Conner VanCleave, a 6-foot-7 left-handed pitcher/first baseman from Holcomb High, outfielder Blaine Ray from Ottawa High and left-hander Daniel Hegarty from Blue Valley High in Leawood.
The Jayhawks also picked up a power arm with the potential to close games or start them. Blue Valley High graduate Ryan Cyr, a 6-3 right-hander, was dismissed from Mississippi State for a violation of team rules and transferred to Kansas. As a freshman for Mississippi State in 2016, Cyr went 1-1 with a 1.04 ERA in 17-1/3 innings. He made one start and 11 relief appearances.
Kansas has 12 commitments from junior college and high school players. Undersized Eli Davis from Shawnee High in Oklahoma is a left-handed power pitcher and left fielder who plays baseball with an in-your-face style sure to make him a fan favorite at Hoglund Ballpark. As will VanCleave, Davis will be given a shot at pitching and playing in the field.
David Kyriacou's smash to the warning track died in the Texas right fielder Austin Todd's glove at about midnight. The Kansas baseball season didn't die with it, but listening on the radio, it was difficult not to draw that conclusion.
Kansas can still salvage its season with its second victory in three nights against TCU, the nation's No. 6 team. That alone might be enough to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee. Or the Jayhawks could take it out of the committee's hands by defeating TCU and then knocking off Texas twice on Saturday to emerge from the lower half of the bracket to take on the winner of the upper half of the bracket on Sunday, and then conquering that squad, but that's too many ifs. The Jayhawks' best chance fell just short in the 5-4 loss to Texas.
Now scoring another upset vs. TCU is KU's only chance.
Kyriacou's deep flyball not only summed up the game but very likely will stand up as a microcosm of the Jayhawks' season in that it came up just a little short.
If that's how it plays out, the team still surpassed expectations and there is cause for optimism looking ahead to 2018.
Jackson Goddard's development ranks at the top of the feel-good vibes for next season. Goddard came so far in one year and at the same time showed a great deal of untapped potential remains in his valuable right arm.
Goddard's error on a sacrifice bunt accounted for two unearned runs in the Longhorns' four-run second inning. He pitched one out into the sixth inning, allowed eight hits, walked three and struck out six. A hard thrower, Goddard once in a while will snap off a slider that suggests the pitch one day could become a dominant one, but it's still in the development stages, as is his changeup. That's to be expected from a pitcher who faced small-school competition in high school and didn't need to do anything but blow away hitters with velocity.
“The progress he made from his freshman year to his sophomore year has been remarkable," Kansas coach Ritch Price said. "He has one final step to make and that’s the ability to command his ball down in the zone and I think when he gets to the point where he starts mixing and is not so much first-pitch fastball he’ll be even more dominant."
Price was impressed with how well the Texas hitters followed the scouting report in beating Goddard.
"I tip my hat to Texas’ plan," Price said. "They know he’s going to throw it up there at 92 to 94. They know he’s going to pitch with his fastball like a professional does. If you’re going to beat Jackson Goddard you’ve got to take his fastball away and they did a good job of that."
If hard-throwing right-hander Ryan Zeferjahn can make the sort of freshman-to-sophomore leap that Goddard did and left-hander Taylor Turski's recent eblow problems don't amount to anything serious, Kansas should have an impressive weekend rotation.
No seniors are in the everyday lineup, although shortstop Matt McLaughlin could be lost to the draft. Expectations for next season will be much higher.
Nothing sharpens an athlete's focus in quite the same manner as a game with sudden-death implications. Even though the Big 12 tournament is a double-elimination format, a loss for Kansas in its first-round game vs. TCU would have dealt a serious blow to the Jayhawks' NCAA tournament chances. It would have extended the Jayhawks' losing streak to five games.
Instead, the Jayhawks defeated the nation's No. 6 team, 7-3, at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark to advance to a game tonight against Texas, first pitch scheduled for 7:30.
Kansas shortstop Matt McLaughlin talked about the edge a team fighting for its postseason life brings into a game like the one the Jayhawks played Wednesday night.
"I think the biggest thing right now is just understanding your window," McLaughlin said. "If you are a TCU or Texas Tech, you are looking to be a national seed, and the motivation to go out and win some games isn’t the same as it is for a team like us. We believe if we go out and win two or three games, we will put ourselves in a position to make a regional."
Oklahoma State upset Texas Tech, 3-0, earlier Tuesday.
A win tonight for Kansas would give another boost to the chances of landing an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament, in event that the Jayhawks don't win the Big 12 tournament title. KU entered the tourney ranked No. 59 in the nation, which put it on the wrong side of the bubble. The TCU upset, bumped KU's estimated RPI to 53, according to respected RPI estimator Warrennolan.com. Oklahoma State moved up eight spots to No. 49.
TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle was extremely complimentary of KU's starting pitcher Tuesday, left-hander Taylor Turski.
"He's a really good pitcher," Schlossnagle said.
Left-hander Blake Weiman was credited with the win in relief and Stephen Villines pitched a scoreless ninth.
"With those two guys Weiman and Villines down there, there was no doubt we were going to have to have a lead going in late."
Kansas head coach Ritch Price called it "a great win for our program against one of the best teams in America. I am very proud of the way we competed and how we grinded the victory out."
The Jayhawks (30-26) likely need one or two more victories to garner an at-large bid.
Sophomore Jackson Goddard is on the mound tonight for Kansas. He started against the Longhorns on April 2 at Hoglund Ballpark and was not involved in the decision in KU's 5-4 victory. Goddard lasted five innings, all three hits and six walks and hit a batter. The team's best pitching prospect, Goddard is 5-3 with a 4.24 ERA with 28 walks and 69 strikeouts in 74-1/3 innings this season.
Nobody without an agenda disputes that the Big 12 is the top college baseball conference this season. At the moment, Kansas has an 11-10 record in conference play, good for a three-way tie for fourth place.
So an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament is a given, right?
Not so fast. This is the age of computer rankings, which in English means the age of selection committees covering their backsides by justifying omissions with cold numbers. Kansas ranks No. 59 in the dreaded RPI, moving down a spot after taking 2 of 3 from Kansas State last weekend at Hoglund Ballpark.
Meanwhile, Texas, which has a 9-11 Big 12 record is No. 23 in the RPI and therefore has nothing about which to worry. Tied with KU with 11-10 records are Baylor (No. 12 RPI) and West Virginia (No. 20) so they are locks.
Most of KU’s regulars are freshmen and sophomores. It took the freshmen awhile to adjust to the college game during the nonconference season.
The NCAA tournament selection committee has 34 at-large bids to name after 31 automatic spots are earned via mostly conference tournaments. If the committee wants to choose the 34 best at-large teams at the time the tournament starts, it would pick KU, but that would require the guts to go against the RPI, aka CYA.
KU’s RPI figures to climb this weekend because it plays at Texas Tech, No. 4 in the RPI. If the Jayhawks win a game or two in Lubbock, the spike could be a big one. The Big 12 tournament also offers a chance to improve the RPI because all the teams participating will have high rankings. The Big 12 has six schools ranked in the top 23 in the current RPI.
D.J. Haurin, assistant communications director for KU athletics, referred to as “my analytics guy” by baseball coach Ritch Price, used the case of Mercer to illustrate how computer rankings can frustrate bubble teams.
Mercer has a 48 RPI and has not played a single game against a team with a top 50 RPI, according to Haurin, who added that KU has played 21 such opponents.
Kansas earned at-large big in 2014 with a 44 RPI and did not get in with a 68 RPI in 2013.
No hitter ranked in the top 10 in Big 12 play in on-base percentage or slugging percentage. Last in the conference by a long shot with three home runs and last with four stolen bases.
Also, last in the Big 12 with a .963 fielding percentage.
So the Jayhawks aren’t particularly good at hitting, hitting with power, fielding or running. No wonder they were a safe pick to extend their streak of last-place finishes to three years. An 11-13 finish in non-conference play did nothing to change anybody’s opinion.
Yet, a look at the standings shows Kansas alone in fourth place in the nine-team league with an 8-7 record.
How is that possible?
For one thing, young players are getting better, even as the competition stiffens. Second baseman James Cosentino, named Big 12 co-newcomer of the week a week ago, is batting .389 in Big 12 play to raise his overall average to .273.
For another, the pitching has come on, led by power pitcher Jackson Goddard’s move to the starting rotation.
Goddard, the Saturday starter, has two walks and 20 strikeouts in 13 innings in his past two starts. KU is 4-1 in his Big 12 starts. He had a 7.60 ERA last season, 4.61 and shrinking so far this season.
Maybe the biggest factor in KU having a winning record in conference play has been playing well in close games, a clutch quality.
Until losing a late lead Sunday and falling 7-6 to Oklahoma in Norman, KU had been 4-0 in one-run conference games.
Stephen Villines, second-team all-conference as a junior, didn’t protect the lead in that one, but has been a reliable closer. He has 11 saves, five in Big 12 play, and on the season has four walks and 40 strikeouts.
This could be a big spring for former University of Kansas right-hander Frank Duncan, traded last week from the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Arizona Diamondbacks for infielder Phil Gosselin, who has spent parts of five seasons in the big leagues.
Duncan, 25, is not on Arizona’s 40-man roster, but was invited to the big-league camp, where he’ll have a chance to show his stuff against major-league hitters while the Diamondbacks evaluate him for a potential bullpen spot.
Duncan has progressed rapidly through the minors since the Pirates chose him in the 13th round of the 2014 draft.
His spent his first season in short-season Class A ball in the fabled NY-Penn League, pitched in advanced A ball in 2015 and after starting last season in Double A quickly earned a promotion to Triple A, where in two stints with the Indianapolis Indians he went 9-6 with a 2.33 ERA in 20 starts and pitched for the International League in the Triple-A All-Star Game.
“He’s got a chance to make the roster this spring,” Kansas coach Ritch Price said. “We’re really excited for him.”
Duncan is slated for a spot in the Triple-A Reno Aces rotation, but with an impressive spring could eke out a long-relief spot on the Diamondbacks’ roster.
Price said that the Pirates made adjustments to Duncan’s delivery, including changing his arm slot, with the goal of him inducing more ground balls.
MLBpipline.com ranks the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Duncan, a native of San Francisco, as the Diamondbacks 22nd-best prospect.
The day will come when a high school baseball player will sign with Kansas, get drafted too late to justify bypassing college, blossom into a star in college and go on to have a Major League career that will land him on the Hall of Fame ballot and in the middle of yes-or-no conversations.
That day isn’t here yet, but with a little luck it will arrive some day.
The Hall of Fame does not discriminate against players from cold-weather schools. Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor attended Minnesota. Chief Bender attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, Penn., Craig Biggio went to Seton Hall in South Orange, N.J., Sandy Koufax to Cincinnati, Jim Bunning across town to Xavier University. Lou Boudreau played for Illinois.
One day, the Rock Chalk Chant will gather momentum in a field on a hot summer day in Cooperstown, N.Y., just not anytime soon.
None of the candidates on this year’s ballot played baseball at Kansas, but I did check the names of 10 players who did not play for KU on my ballot and dropped it in the mailbox well ahead of the New Year’s Eve deadline.
Steroids have muddied the election process because there is no easy way to figure them into the decision.
Here’s how I handled that puzzle: I don’t disqualify known or suspected performance-enhancing-drug users from consideration, but I do form an opinion as to how much they inflated their statistics. It’s a ballot of opinion, not a legal document, so I don’t judge based purely on failed drug tests.
I never have voted for Sammy Sosa, who was a terrific slugger when his muscles grew to Michelin Man proportions, a much easier out before and after his inflated body spawned inflated numbers.
Two selections required no thought whatsoever and they are the first two names I check every year. The order in which I put the checks next to the names:
1 - Barry Bonds: Before his head grew a few cap sizes and he became such a ridiculously productive hitter that managers were known to walk him with the bases loaded, Bonds already was the best hitter in the game, the one whose bat was most respected by pitchers and managers alike. Nobody was better at hitting pitchers’ pitches. The steroids made him quicker and stronger, the quickness advantage enabling him to wait a tick longer to determine the location of the pitch, the added speed and strength combining to drive is power to another level.
Did the steroids play a part in him passing Hank Aaron? Absolutely, which is why I still consider Aaron’s 755 to be the magic home run number at which great power hitters should take aim.
Bonds won seven MVP awards, some coming before he did what a very high percentage of his peers did, cheat to gain an edge at a time when not cheating would have allowed lesser talents to win the awards that he deserved because he was the best of the best.
2 - Roger Clemens: Won a record seven Cy Young Awards, some coming before he took substances that added power to his pitches and staved off the aging process. His first 20-strikeout performance came before long before the juice and so did countless other achievements worthy of Cooperstown.
3 - Ivan Rodriguez: Peers laughed when back in the day they were asked off-the-record if he were a juicer. It was a laugh that said, “Of course he is.”
Jose Canseco said he injected Rodriguez with steroids and let’s be honest, the reason Canseco has been ostracized by peers has everything to do with him blabbing secrets and nothing to do with the accuracy of his tales.
Pudge himself, when asked if he had been one of the 104 players who tested positive during the 2003 survey testing, answered, “Only God knows.” Give him credit for having the courtesy not to lie.
The 14-time All-Star had a reputation for selfishness, a terrible trait for a catcher, but he more than compensated with a rocket for an arm, a live bat and unusual speed for a catcher.
4 - Mike Mussina: He ranked in the top six in Cy Young Award voting nine times. Case closed.
5 - Vladimir Guerrero: A classic five-tool talent who was somewhat like the Andre Dawson of his era, but with better knees, Guerrero won an MVP and finished in the top 10 five other times. A nine-time All-Star, he ran the bases well and was such a dangerous hitter that he led the league in intentional walks five times.
6 - Tim Raines: Other than the great Rickey Henderson, there wasn’t a better leadoff hitter during his era. He knew how to get on base and knew how to steal bases without getting thrown out.
7 - Edgar Martinez: I checked the rules. There is nothing in them that says designated hitters are not allowed in Cooperstown. All the prettiest swings in baseball are left-handed strokes, except Martinez. He’s a member of the Sweet-Swinging Lefty Club, even though he batted from the right side. Outrageously clutch. His absence of ego kept led to his fame trailing his accomplishments. Pitchers knew what a great hitter he was and hated facing him.
8 - Jeff Bagwell: Won an MVP Award and finished in top 10 five other times. Adept at running the bases, stealing them when it made sense and alertly taking the extra base. Did it all, hitting for power and average, drawing walks, playing a strong first base. He’s right there on the border, always an extremely tough call. Vote for him and you wonder if you’re doing the right thing. Send a ballot without his name checked and you wonder the same.
9 - Curt Schilling: Four seasons in the top five of Cy Young voting is not bad, but not great. Six All-Star games doesn’t make him anywhere close to an automatic either. His win-total of 216 is atypically low by Hall of Fame starting pitcher standards.
So why did I vote for this borderline . . . you thought I was going to type “lunatic” didn’t you? I wasn’t going to type that word. Honest I wasn’t. I was going to type “Hall of Fame candidate.”
His outrageous postseason numbers, 11-2, 2.23 ERA, 25 walks and 120 strikeouts, make him among the most clutch pitchers of his or any era.
10 - Manny Ramirez: He was an especially sloppy cheater, once getting nailed with a 50-game suspension, another time with a 100-game stay in the penalty box that sent him into retirement, although he tried to come out of it without success. He twice let his team down by getting caught, and it’s conceivable he spent his entire career cheating, thus inflating his numbers. But my guess is if steroids never had become available to baseball players, Ramirez would have been among the top handful of hitters in the game throughout his career. He made hitting look simple: See the ball, crush the ball.
Every year, after mailing the ballot, buyer’s remorse sets in and I wonder, did I do the right thing? The final five selections all were borderline calls in my mind.
I had no such struggles when I emailed my Heisman ballot last month: 1 - Deshaun Watson, Clemson; 2 - Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma; 3 - Lamar Jackson, Louisville.