MANHATTAN — A season that began with visions of the College World Series may end without a trip to the Big 12 Tournament.
That is the disappointing reality currently facing the Kansas State baseball team.
A year after winning a Big 12 championship, and months after topping the league’s preseason poll, the Wildcats (24-25, 4-14 Big 12) reside at the bottom of the conference standings. They are in danger of becoming the first team in conference history to go from first to worst. To help put that in perspective: no team has finished worse than eighth a season after winning the Big 12 championship and no preseason favorite has finished lower than sixth in the final Big 12 standings.
K-State can avoid making the wrong kind of history with a strong finish, but time is running out. Six games remain in the regular season, with a three-game series against No. 7 Oklahoma State starting on Friday. No. 17 Texas will visit Manhattan for three games next week. The Big 12’s top eight teams advance to the conference tournament in Oklahoma City, and K-State trails Oklahoma (26-23, 6-12) by two games for the final spot.
In other words, K-State needs a late surge to salvage something positive out of this season.
“It would be a great accomplishment with where we are right now and the position we are in right now,” K-State coach Brad Hill said. “We are playing two of the top teams in the league, and we have got our work cut out for us, but I wouldn’t put it past these guys. I am not counting them out by any means. I have seen what these guys can do, we know what these guys can do, unfortunately we have seen it in short periods of time this year.
“But we aren’t out of it. We still have something to play for. I hope these guys realize that. We have nothing to lose. No one is expecting us to win these last two series.”
Indeed, the task is not easy. Oklahoma State is battling TCU for a conference championship. Its desire to win is every bit as great as K-State’s. And its top two pitchers, Jon Perrin and Tyler Buffett, both have sub-2.25 ERAs. Texas is within reach of hosting a NCAA Regional. This time of year, everyone has something to play for.
“We know it is there.” K-State senior R.J. Santigate said. “We just have to be as loose as we possibly can, that’s the big thing, and know that we have nothing to lose. I think that is going to help us out. Coming into this year we had a lot of expectations. Those are kind of gone now, so hopefully we can breathe and take advantage of these last few games.”
Nerves don’t seem to be bothering K-State. On Thursday, players enjoyed a low-intensity practice, laughing and smiling the whole way through.
K-State’s biggest challenge might be finding its form. The Wildcats have lost 12 of their last 16 games, including seven straight in the Big 12. A midweek victory at Wichita State has helped team morale, but that hasn’t carried over to conference play in recent weeks. Perhaps playing at home, where they are 15-4, will help.
“This year has obviously been stressful,” K-State catcher Blair DeBord said. “We thought we had some pieces in place to do some pretty incredible things this year. We had some injuries and the ball just didn’t bounce our way. With saying that, against Wichita State we got quite a few breaks.… We are hoping those breaks carry over into these next two weekends and help us out a little bit.”
K-State hasn’t missed the Big 12 Tournament since 2006, Hill’s third season on the job. Getting there once again is now the goal.