LAWRENCE — His name is A.J. Reed, and he hits home runs. They are sometimes mammoth, sometimes laser shots, but the consistent theme is this: When Reed, a Kentucky junior, swings the bat, he often hits the ball out of the ballpark.
So when the NCAA baseball regional matchups were unveiled on Monday, and No. 3 seed Kansas earned a date with No. 2 seed Kentucky, KU coach Ritch Price pulled up Reed’s season stats: .351 average, 23 homers and 70 RBIs in 58 games.
“He’s got more homers than the Royals combined,” Price said this week, gently mentioning the struggling major-league club up the road.
This is true, of course. It’s also why the Kansas pitching staff will have plenty respect for the Kentucky offense entering the regional opener at 1 p.m. Friday at Patterson Stadium in Louisville. No. 4 seed Kent State will play No. 1 Louisville in the other game at the site.
This is rare territory for Kansas (34-24) which is playing in just its fifth NCAA regional and first since 2009. The Jayhawks have advanced past a regional once before, during a run to the College World Series in 1993.
So now, Price is hoping for more history, and he will hand the ball to converted reliever Jordan Piche, a senior right-hander who stepped into the starting rotation after junior left-hander Wes Benjamin underwent elbow surgery in April. Senior right-hander Frank Duncan is expected to pitch in game two on Saturday in the double-elimination format, and the Jayhawks will try to survive a loaded region.
Reed, the Wildcats’ slugger, is also an ace on the mound, amassing an 11-2 record and 2.10 ERA. But Kentucky coach Gary Henderson is expected to save Reed for Kentucky’s second game.
Host school Louisville advanced to the College World Series last season, and Kent State made a surprise run to Omaha in 2012.
“If we come together and play,” Piche said this week, “I think we can beat anybody.”
For Price and Kansas, the formula for success starts with pitching. On Friday, it will start with Piche, a former junior-college transfer who led the Big 12 with 12 saves last season. Piche dominated right-handed hitters with a fastball-slider mix, but an early-season arm injury to Benjamin left a hole in the Jayhawks’ staff. Price needed a Friday night starter, and Piche transitioned from the bullpen, keying a nine-game Big 12 winning streak in May.
“No idea I was going to be starting,” said Piche, a native of Greeley, Colo. “At first, it was a hard role to take, but it came off easy. You still got to make pitches; you still got to be a competitor on the mound. And if that all comes together as it has, things are going to be successful.”
Price also believed that a move to the starting rotation would allow Piche to use his change-up more effectively. If he could consistently command the change-up, he would have a better weapon to disarm left-handed batters.
“The saving grace for us was that Jordan was a starter in junior college, and that’s why I was comfortable making that switch,” Price said. “He had done that for two years, and he had been highly successful at it.”
The plan paid dividends for both Kansas and Piche. The Jayhawks finished third in the Big 12 standings, its best finish since the inception of the conference, and Piche totes a 4.25 ERA into Friday’s contest. The next test: Keep the ball in the ballpark against Reed and Kentucky.
“His makeup is off the charts,” Price said of Piche. “You have to have unbelievable makeup to pitch Friday night in our league.”