LAWRENCE — You probably know some of the natural disadvantages that curb the baseball programs at Kansas and K-State. Cold weather is one, of course. So is history. And so is the fact that four Big 12 rivals ply their trade in baseball-rich Texas.
But here we are, closing in on the college baseball postseason, and the in-state rivals are both firmly entrenched in the Big 12 regular-season title race. And that makes this weekend’s three-game series in Lawrence, which begins on Friday, one of the most intriguing in the recent history of the Sunflower Showdown: Baseball Edition.
K-State (34-15, 11-7 Big 12) is tied atop the conference standings with Oklahoma and West Virginia, while the Jayhawks (31-18, 12-9) have won six straight games and sit just a half-game out of first.
“We’re right in the hunt,” KU senior shortstop Kevin Kuntz said, “It’s a big weekend for us. It’s cool having Senior Night and having K-State at home.”
The Jayhawks weren’t exactly expected to be in this position. For two years, they’d been crippled by unexpected defections to the Major League Baseball Draft. And after a 24-34 campaign in 2012, they were picked to finish eighth in the Big 12. But two main factors, Kuntz says, have spurred the breakthrough.
After going to battle with a freshman-dominated roster last season, Kansas’ young players are now battle-tested and experienced. Add in closer Jordan Piche’, a junior college transfer, and KU now has a legitimate stopper in the bullpen.
Piche, a 6-foot-1 right-hander from Indian Hills Community College in Iowa, has posted a 0.71 ERA in 51 innings while leading the Big 12 with 10 saves.
“When you hand the ball to someone that’s special at the end of the game,” KU coach Ritch Price said, “and they slam the door; the confidence it puts in your dugout, it’s off the charts.”
Meanwhile, senior right-hander Thomas Taylor, a graduate of Blue Valley West, has matured into a reliable front-end starter, recording a 2.37 ERA over 11 starts.
“I think we’re a lot more comfortable and just have a lot more confidence this year,” Taylor said. “Last year, there were a lot of young guys playing.”
The Kansas pitching staff will have its hands full this weekend against K-State. The Wildcats are second in the nation with a team batting average of .323, and freshman reliever Jake Matthys is 7-0 with 1.73 ERA in 24 appearances.
“His competitiveness and composure is pretty good,” K-State coach Brad Hill said last weekend, during a series victory against Texas.
Now Hill will bring his team east for a three-game set in Lawrence, where a history lesson awaits. On Saturday, KU will commemorate the 20th anniversary of its 1993 College World Series squad. Hill was a young assistant on that squad, the last from KU or K-State to play on college baseball’s biggest stage.
But with a league title in the balance, this weekend could be plenty big for both schools.
“We took our lumps last year,” Price said. “We played five freshmen on a regular basis. We pitched three freshmen, and I really saw it turn at the end of the season. I saw the growth in the last month, and it’s carried over to this season.”