Kansas didn't expect to face some of its greatest challenges the first few weeks of the season, but it did, and Ritch Price's team is better and more mature because of it.
The college baseball community often discusses the snowbird programs, the teams from the northern half of the country who are forced to head south early in the season. Most of the time, the talk somehow gets relegated to Big Ten, MAC and Northeastern schools. But what about the Kansas Jayhawks and others in the Heartland region?
Besides the obvious weather issues so far this spring, KU has dealt with other obstacles. For instance, 21 of its first 25 games were on the road. And even in Week Three, the Jayhawks were supposed to play host to Houston Baptist. Instead, horrible weather kept the series from being played in Lawrence, Kan., and Price was forced to rent a ballpark in Grand Prairie, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. That ballpark is more than an eight-hour drive from where the series originally was scheduled.
"It's just been crazy for us. We had six-straight weekends on the road before getting Dartmouth at home last weekend, but we've been grinding it out," Price said. "Now, our guys know what kind of grind the season is and are prepared for anything that comes about. I'd have to believe that we've been on the road more than anyone in the country at this point."
Long before the season began, Kansas, at least in some aspects, looked on paper like a team worth watching. The Jayhawks had something to prove offensively -- and has since answered those questions -- but the big plus with this club going into the year was a highly experienced starting rotation and quality crop of relievers.
Junior lefthanded pitcher Wes Benjamin, senior righthander Frank Duncan and junior righty Robert Kahana all entered the spring with very high expectations. Though not flawless, it's been so far, so good with this trio of arms.
"So far, our guys have been pretty consistent," Price said. "When you play in a league like ours, you really have to get three quality starts on the weekend in order to win a series. I feel like our starting rotation puts us in a pretty good spot most times out."
Duncan headlines the rotation entering the Oklahoma series. He has a 1.79 ERA in 45 1/3 innings, along with an incredible 41 strikeouts as opposed to a whopping three walks. Stuff-wise, he's been a classic four-pitch mix type, sitting 88-90 with his fastball, along with a good changeup, slider and curveball. The key for Duncan is his command of the strike zone.
Benjamin is off to a good, but far from great, start the first couple of months of the season. Benjamin entered the year as arguably KU's most heralded arm, but has a 4.50 ERA in 40 innings, along with 27 walks and 10 strikeouts. The talented lefty has a power arm with a fastball 89-92, and better command of his secondary stuff here of late.
Then there's Kahana. The 6-foot, 211-pound Hawaii native has been okay for Price's club, but has yet to meet his full potential. Kahana, like the others, has the ability to sit 90-92 with a good slider. However, his fastball command has been average at best this season, while the Jayhawks are trying to find ways to instill a more hard-nosed attitude.
"The really interesting thing about Robert is he's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, so trying to get a guy like that to be a bulldog out there can be difficult," Price said. "It's something you have to address consistently. He was our best guy by far during intrasquads leading up to the season. We just need him to get back to that point."
The Jayhawks also possess a talented bullpen with some power arms. Two-way star Dakota Smith, who has a 3.21 ERA and leads the team in hitting with a .352 batting average, has a lot of upside with a fastball sitting 91-94. Senior righthander Jordan Piche was dominant last season, but has a 4.63 ERA so far this spring. Piche has been working on his slider the past couple of weeks, and it's a pitch Price feels like he's gotten back on track. Shaking up the continuity is freshman righthander Stephen Villines, a crafty pitcher who has an 0.53 ERA in 17 innings. Villines comes from a sidearm angle and is a sinker/changeup pitcher who's consistently good.
The Jayhawks' solid pitching staff is expected to set the table every weekend, while the rising offense also deserves recognition. KU enters the OU series with an impressive .306 batting average, with Smith, and vastly improved Michael Suiter (.333) leading the way. Meanwhile, 5-foot-6 Justin Protacio (.321) is a spark plug, and athletic Connor McKay (.320) is hitting his stride as a prospect and contributor at the right time.
"We have been pretty good one through nine in the lineup, and I'm thrilled with what I've seen from this unit thus far," he said. "Connor is a guy with some fantastic tools and he's been a different guy this season. Suiter is a big impact guy and Protacio really sets the table for us atop the lineup.
"I think the big thing for us offensively is we have to continue to execute our short game," he continued. "We've done a pretty good job of it this year, but we need to continue being good with two strikes. Defensively, we need to be better moving forward."
With an important series against the Sooners this weekend, Price says the Jayhawks finally are slated to get some decent weather with temperatures in the 60s and 70s expected.
Dealing with the inclement weather most of the season has been a burden, and yet, a positive, for the Jayhawks. Now, with warmer temperatures on the horizon, it's full speed ahead.
SHOWDOWN IN WEST TEXAS: Texas at Texas Tech
Tim Tadlock and his demeanor are perfect for Texas Tech as it aims for its first NCAA postseason appearance since 2004.
Some coaches around the country might often get caught up in the glitz and glamour of their respective programs or leagues, but nestled off on the South Plains of West Texas is a laid back, carefree and take nothing for granted type of coach in Tadlock.
Ask Tadlock about someone's velocity numbers, and he'll tell you he's only worried about winning baseball games. Ask Tadlock about the upcoming series against the in-state rival Texas Longhorns, and once again, laid back, calmly, he'll say "It's just another series, but we're ready to embrace the competition." Sure, some out there might see those type of comments as a sign of disrespect, but in the case of Tadlock, far from it. Tadlock and his coaching staff truly take things one game at a time, and it's a trait his players have acquired as well.
That's just the Tadlock way.
"I'm not one to really say one way or the other when it comes to this team, I just know we've got a chance to win every time to step out there," Tadlock said. "Right now, it's not easy to go out there and win because we're in conference, but our guys understand that."
Tadlock and the Red Raiders will tell you they haven't proven much so far this spring, but this is a much-improved club that enters the Texas series looking to improve its postseason resume, and not just hoping to stay out of the Big 12 cellar. Tech currently has an RPI of 25, overall record of 21-7 and 6-5 mark vs. RPI Top 100. Yes, it's still way too early to look at RPI as a reliable metric, but case in point, the Red Raiders are in much better shape than they were at this time last season.
Offensively, Tadlock really likes what veteran Bryant Burleson -- hitting .282 with a home run and 16 RBIs -- has been doing the past couple of weeks, while Adam Kirsch is a pleasant surprise with a .330 average, two homers and 26 RBIs.
As important as the offensive lineup is against the Longhorns this weekend, holding the UT offense down is the key to the series with the burnt orange possessing a pitching staff with a terrific 1.89 earned-run average.
Moreno, who sits 87-88, touching 90, with his fastball, while also working heavy with the slider, must give the Red Raiders a quality start against the Longhorns, while lefthander Chris Sadberry is one of the biggest risers in the Big 12. Sadberry impressed at the Houston College Classic earlier this year, showing good feel for his fastball and secondary stuff, sitting 89-91 with his fastball, while also touching a few 92s on the radar gun. Most of all, Sadberry displayed good command of the zone, and has a 2.35 ERA in 30 2/3 innings, along with 17 strikeouts and two walks.
"When Moreno commands that fastball and slider the way we need him to, he's pretty good," Tadlock said. "Sadberry has been pretty consistent, and that's what we're looking for from our guys. Chris is just efficient, pounds the zone with strikes and shows good feel for his fastball, breaking ball and changeup."
Texas Tech has an unorthodox approach from a pitching standpoint this weekend. While Moreno is slated to start Friday, and Sadberry has the Sunday role, that leaves a gap on Saturday. Crafty lefthander Cameron Smith or Corey Taylor could get the starting nod, but the Red Raiders have a copious amount of options.
This weekend's series against Texas will be a good measuring stick for the Red Raiders. But you can bet, win or lose, by Monday, Tadlock will state the obvious: "It's just another series."
MORE SERIES TO WATCH
No. 9 LSU at Florida: Fresh off a home series win over Georgia, the Tigers hit the road this weekend to take on a Gators club coming off a nice midweek win over top-ranked Florida State. The Gators will be without Zack Powers, who will be serving a four-game suspension after an altercation on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Tigers enter the weekend with a .278 batting average, with shortstop Alex Bregman, who has been struggling as of late, hitting .330 with a home run and 15 RBIs. Florida is always tough at home, but the Tigers have the better offense in this one.
No. 20 Tennessee at No. 4 South Carolina: I’m curious to see how the Volunteers respond this weekend. Chances are great the Vols will play just fine this weekend, but they’re coming off a tough home series loss to Auburn last weekend. Talented freshman Nick Senzel is a quality bat to watch this weekend, while for the Gamecocks, it looks like catcher Grayson Greiner will play this weekend despite some injury concerns earlier in the week. The Vols should give the Gamecocks all they can handle, but look for Chad Holbrook’s team to be victorious this weekend.
No. 17 Kentucky at No. 6 Vanderbilt: The Wildcats made a nice statement last weekend by taking two of three at home from South Carolina. Now, they hit the road looking to make even more headlines. Michael Thomas is having a great year with a .400 average, five homers and 29 RBIs, while two-way star A.J. Reed is in the mix for National Player of the Year honors with a .372 average, nine homers and 33 RBIs, along with a 2.20 ERA in 41 innings. Vandy dropped a tough series to Mississippi State on the road last weekend, but showed me a lot by wrapping up that series playing its brand of baseball. UK is a tough test, but I like Vandy at home.
No. 11 Cal State Fullerton at Wichita State: The Titans still have one of the nation’s better clubs, but must establish some sort of consistency from a defensive standpoint. That’s been a weakness the entire season and must change. Fullerton will be without righthanded pitcher Justin Garza for another weekend, while for the Shockers, first baseman Casey Gillaspie, hitting .398 with four homers, needs to have a big weekend. WSU also has a good trio of starting pitchers in A.J. Ladwig (0.91), Cale Elam (1.32) and Sam Tewes (2.45).
No. 16 Mississippi at Alabama: The Rebels are coming off a home series sweep over Missouri, and hope to continue their successful ways against an Alabama club looking to get back on track at home. Ole Miss has been consistently good this spring, while the Crimson Tide is encouraged by righthanded pitcher Spencer Turnbull, who’s finally commanding all of his pitches and has an 0.28 ERA in 32 innings, along with 27 strikeouts. ‘Bama will be tough at home this weekend.
Arkansas at No. 13 Mississippi State: The Razorbacks desperately need to showcase some offense this weekend, as they hit the road to take on Mississippi State. Arkansas is hitting just .265 as a team, though ultra talented Brian Anderson is hitting a team-best .330 with two homers and 20 RBIs, meeting the lofty expectations placed on him before the season. Meanwhile, State has gotten a significant boost from veteran lefthanded pitcher Ross Mitchell, who has a 1.66 ERA in 43 1/3 innings. We like the Bulldogs to take care of business at home.
Miami (Fla.) at No. 19 North Carolina State: The Hurricanes dropped a tough home series to Virginia last weekend after prevailing in the series opener. Now, the ‘Canes, sitting at 14-12 overall, need to take a road series from the Wolfpack this weekend. Andrew Suarez, Bryan Radziewski and Chris Diaz are talented arms to watch this weekend, while the offense leaves something to be desired. Meanwhile, for the Wolfpack, shortstop Trea Turner has been a monster as of late with a home run in three-straight games, while lefthanded pitcher Carlos Rodon hopes to rebound from a start against Maryland, where he allowed eight runs on six hits in 4 2/3 innings.
No. 23 North Carolina at Duke: This might not be the series for you if you’re a fan of electric offenses. Both the Blue Devils and Tar Heels are average at best offensive clubs, but both possess some high quality arms. For the Tar Heels, righthanded pitchers Trent Thornton and Benton Moss make a dynamic duo, while for the Blue Devils, Andrew Istler is having a nice season, and hard-throwing righthanded pitcher Michael Matuella, who has a premium arm with a fastball into the upper 90s, is expected to return to a full pitch count this weekend. I’m giving a slight edge to UNC.
TCU at Oklahoma State: Both of these clubs are in dire need of an impressive marquee series win, and it’s the Frogs hitting the road to face the Pokes. TCU lefthanded pitcher Brandon Finnegan has flashed elite stuff so far this season, tallying a 1.44 ERA in 43 2/3 innings, along with 65 strikeouts and nine walks, while the offense has struggled with a .270 batting average. For the Cowboys, Zach Fish (.341/4/17) and Gage Green (.333/0/8) are having productive seasons, while the rest of the offense needs to get going, as the Pokes are hitting .258.
Florida International at UAB: Here’s a nice under the radar series to watch this weekend. FIU enters the weekend with a fantastic 21-4 overall record, but lacks a marquee series win. Catcher Aramis Garcia and Josh Anderson are having productive offensive campaigns. Meanwhile, the Blazers are one of the biggest surprises so far this season, sitting 17-8 overall with a 4-2 record in Conference USA. Veteran righthanded pitchers Alex Luna and Chase Mallard are surprises, with Luna having a 1.00 ERA in 36 innings, along with 30 strikeouts and two walks, and Mallard with a 1.03 ERA in 43 2/3 innings, along with 45 strikeouts and 12 walks.