Kansas Baseball Holds Media Day

Feb. 14, 2012

021412aaa_873_7441443.jpegLAWRENCE, Kan. – Kansas head coach Ritch Price and the Jayhawk baseball team held its annual media day on Tuesday in preparation for the upcoming season. Coach Price addressed a full media room in Allen Fieldhouse and spoke about the challenges of facing five-straight weekends away from home to open the season and his excitement for the upcoming year.

Below is a transcript of Price’s press conference as well as interviews with select student-athletes.

Kansas head coach Ritch Price

Opening Statement:
“First of all I want to thank everybody for being here, we appreciate the turn out. Obviously like every team in the country that opens this weekend, we are all excited about getting started and having an opportunity to compete. As I start my 10th year here, I want to thank my boss (KU Senior Associate Athletic Director) Sean Lester for helping us put the turf in (in 2010). We have actually opened our season, three of the nine years I have been here without having a day outside of practice and we have not missed a day this entire winter, despite how cold the weather was last week. We feel like we are prepared to get started and we are looking forward to the journey that lies ahead.”

On his pitching staff:
“We are going to do something a little bit unique as we open up. A year ago we were 9-9 on Easter Sunday and in fourth place in our league with nine games to go and we lost nine- straight (in conference play). In 33 years, I had never lost nine-straight games. We blew four leads in the ninth inning, so we are actually going to open the season with (junior) Tanner Poppe, who has been a starter as a freshman and a sophomore in the closer’s role. We are going to put our best arm in the back end of games and see if we can make sure we can close the deal, when we have the lead. With that being said Robert Kahana, the freshman from Hawaii, is one of the best freshman arms since I’ve been here. We have put him in the back end of the rotation as well to sit there and set up for Tanner. You could make an argument that our two best arms are at the back end of ballgames, and that is by design.”

“Obviously your starting pitching has to be good enough to get you to the two guys at the end of ballgames, so we are going to move (sophomore) Frank Duncan, who was our set up guy a year ago as a freshman, to opening up our season, pitching on Friday. I think you will also really like our freshman left-hander, Wes Benjamin, when you see him. He has a tremendous upside, great gifts and has a great future in the game even beyond KU as he continues his development. We are going to run him out on Saturday. (Thomas) Taylor will be on Sunday and right now the freshman Drew Morvick will be the Tuesday starter. This is a four-game weekend, but this is how we are going to open things up.”

On moving Zac Elgie to third base and Jake Marasco to first:
“I almost did it last year during the middle of the year, but the reason I didn’t was because we were playing so well at the time and I thought it could be disruptive if it didn’t work. I think the switches work well for both players. Jake has made an outstanding adjustment to first base, which he also played some in high school. He picks the ball well, but I think Zac (at third) is a little bit of a better athlete as far as having better lateral movement. I want to compliment Zac because it is a hard position switch to make. There are a lot of guys in the big leagues that have tried to do that (and it hasn’t worked). I think Zac understands that in order to become a professional baseball player, he has to play third base. So far the transition has been good. He is going to have some growing pains and there are going to be some weekends where every in-between hop finds him, but it is going to my job and (assistant coach) Ritchie (Price) to coach him through that. I am really pleased though with the progress he’s made and it has made us significantly better defensively at both corners.”

On preparing college ball players to play professionally:
“I think one of the great things that we do when I make my home visits is, I take the data that more college players play in the big leagues than high school players. The percentages are significant and when you think about the fact that the pro scouts are able to sign the top prospects in the country, it is an alarming statistic, when you look at it, especially pitching – right handed pitching in particular. Our conference prepares you to successful in professional baseball. If you are a hitter, the average velocity in our league when the weekend series is over is more than 90 miles per hour by every single team. When our players go out to play professional baseball, they have seen plus velocity. They have also seen good arms and plus sliders at the back end of rotations as several of those guys are now pitching in the big leagues, from Huston Street to Chance Ruffin, who have closed for several of the clubs. So I think there are no doubts, if you want to become a professional baseball player, you should go to school first, especially if you can play in a premiere conference like the Big 12.”

On his concerns for the upcoming season:
“I think the first thing is, when you look at the schedule, we are going on the road the first five weekends. When I sat down with (Senior Associate Athletics Director) Sean Lester at the end of the (2011) season, I explained to him what I was going to try to do. It is almost unheard of and most teams would not have the courage to do so, when the home team wins 69 percent of the time. We have to get better every weekend because we have 13 freshmen on our roster and we are going to play five significantly. The only way I can develop that club to compete in my league is that I make sure we take no steps backwards. We all know living in the Midwest, we could be outside one weekend and then not get outside for two-straight weekends if we had back-to-back home series. In order to develop this club properly, we are going to go on the road and challenge our players to rise to the level it is going to take to compete in the Big 12 Conference. I have some concerns about that many road games to open up. At the same time, I do a pretty good job of being positive and bringing some energy to the table every day. That is one of the things I will have to do if we go through bad growing pains early in the season, we are going to have to see the big picture in the end and be better prepared for it.”

On how the mild winter weather has helped his team practice:
“It is the most prepared we have had a club to play in the 10 years that I have been here, being outside every day. Right now our hitters are knocking our pitchers all over the ball park, which is what is taking place in our intrasquad games. When we have been really good in 2006 and 2009 and have been in the Top 25 when the year ended, we beat our pitchers up pretty good in our intrasquad scrimmages. At the same time, I really like our pitching potential. We are not there yet and (pitching) coach (Ryan) Graves will be the first guy to tell you that we have not pitched at the level need to get to, but the talent is there if he continues to help those guys develop properly.”

On the freshmen outfielders:
“There are three. Connor McKay is from Colorado and the only reason he is on campus is because he tore his ACL in the state championship football game in Colorado or he would have signed out of high school. The light bulb went on for him about a month ago, and he’s taken his skill set to a whole different level. He puts on an absolute show in B.P. (batting practice) driving the ball gap-to-gap. He’s one of the fastest players we’ve had since I’ve been here. He has a better-than-average arm and is improving defensively. Right now, that’s the area we aren’t as pleased with him at. When we started, our first day of practice to where we are now, he’s got a chance to be a freshman All-American. Michael Suiter reminds me of John Allman who was a four-year starter for us. He’s the Hawaii High School Player of the Year. He’s very solid defensively and very physical with the bat. He’s a good runner. He will be a professional baseball player as well before he’s done. Dakota Smith is a local young man from the Lansing/Leavenworth area. He has tremendous talent. He’s struggling right now big time. He’s struggling with the breaking ball. He gets in his head a little bit, but he’s a plus runner, a plus defender, has a plus arm and he’s got pop. He’s going to be a high draft pick when he leaves here as well, but he’s not quite as far along as the other two are at this point in time.”

“The fourth outfielder that I’m really pleased with is Tucker Tharp, the sophomore from Colorado. He got to play at the end of the season a year ago. He’s going to bat third Friday night. He’s become a solid defender in the outfield. (Assistant Coach) Ritchie (Price) has done a tremendously good job with him. He hit over .400 in the fall and he’s been our most impressive player offensively in our scrimmages so far.”

On avoiding a hitting slump at the beginning of the season:
“Our pitching got criticized at the end of last season quite a bit as we fell apart at the end, but for two months it was outstanding when we really struggled with the bat. We started (Big 12) conference with a team batting average under .200 last year and finished around .270. First off, I want to compliment the job Ritchie has done with our hitters. He has done an outstanding job. He understands how to be fast-ball efficient, how to put the drill series together to develop our players. He’s been a great addition to have back on our staff. We’re going to be one of the best offensive teams in our league, I have no doubts about that. We have really good talent and good depth, and he’s done a really good job of developing our guys.”

On Assistant Coach Ritchie Price:
“He brings baseball savvy (to the table). He understands how to play the game the right way. He’s the smartest player I’ve ever coached, and I don’t just say that because he’s my son. It’s a reality. He’s going to bring some insight to the game that’s going to make all of our players better, and he’s earned a right to come back here. He success at South Dakota State was unparalleled at his age and he’s been a great addition to our staff.”

On the team’s new bats:
“Easton has done a really nice job. That’s who our bat contract is with. The bats are better balanced, and the performance has been better in our practice and games. They didn’t expect the change to happen so fast a year ago and the bat companies weren’t prepared for it. They’ve got them balanced properly now and we’re hitting the ball out of the ballpark in B.P. and in scrimmage games. A year ago, we couldn’t hit the ball to the warning track. It’s been a significant difference.”

On not opening the season against a No. 1 team:
“I came here to play No. 1 teams in the country. I believe we have the best record in the conference in the last nine years against teams that are ranked No. 1 in the country. We have to overachieve and we understand that. We’re a cold-weather team playing a warm-weather sport against national powers. There will be six or seven teams in our conference ranked in the top 25. Kids come to Kansas to play in the Big 12 and to play against that caliber of competition. We look at it as a great opportunity and we enjoy every moment of it. I’m hopeful that by the time we play Texas or Texas A&M, they’ll be No. 1 in the country.”

On the changing look of the Big 12:
“I was really sorry to see those teams leave. I love playing Texas A&M. The rivalry against Missouri is as good as any in the country and ours is included. We’re fortunate enough to be 10-2 against Missouri the last 12 times we’ve played them. I’m sorry to see them leave. They cancelled our game at Kauffman Stadium in April. We’re disappointed to see that game go away. That was one of the highlight games on our schedule, especially for all of the local kids to get to play at Kauffman Stadium. I think if you’re going to lose Texas A&M, you couldn’t have a better team to get than Texas Christian. They’ve been in the top 10 and the College World Series two years ago. They’ll be an outstanding addition to the club. Our league is still going to have six or seven teams in the top 25.”

On being ranked ninth in the conference coaches’ poll:
“When I came here, I was the newest coach in the league, and I think six coaches have lost their jobs since I’ve been in the conference. It seemed like every time we finished in the top five, somebody got fired that finished behind us and was supposed to be better than us. I told our players the other day that in 2009 we were predicted to be last. We finished fourth and we finished the regular season 23rd in the country. You bet we’re going to use it as motivation. I actually like where we’re at. I like our club, and if I didn’t like our club, I’d tell you that straight up, too. We have great team chemistry, we have depth and we have potential. If our coaching staff does our job, we’ll overachieve and we’ll be successful when it’s all over.”

On why the Jayhawks were picked ninth:
“I think it’s because we lost nine straight to end the season a year ago. If we’d have finished fifth, we would’ve been picked fifth or sixth. It’s also a great tribute to the conference. Missouri finished eighth or ninth last year and played in the championship game of the Big 12 Tournament. It happens every year. It speaks volumes of how good the league is. (The difference between) finishing ninth and finishing fifth will be two games when it’s all over. That’s how close it’s going to be.”

Senior third baseman Zac Elgie

On the team this season:
“I think we have a chance to be really good this season, especially with the switch between Jake (Marasco) and I (switching from first base to third). I think, as a team, it makes us better defensively. I think it closes a lot of gaps in the infield that we have had with throwing errors and things like that. Those are things that can win or lose ballgames. The fact that we’ve solidified the defense, especially on the infield, is going to be a big part in helping us be successful this year.”

On junior shortstop Kevin Kuntz:
“He’ll be a really good defensive shortstop. Another thing you are going to get out of him is on-base percentage. Last year I think he almost led our team in walks and he only played in half the games. I feel like he will set the table for us a lot at the top of the lineup. If we have to, he’ll get the guy over in sacrifice bunt situations. We’re looking forward to him making some positive defensive plays up the middle.”

On if Ka’iana Eldredge will be more comfortable with a full year under his belt:
“I think Ka’i (Eldredge) is ready for a break out year. This fall and in our scrimmages he’s been really excited about being able to contribute. At the end of the year last year he was doing that for us. I think he developed over the summer and he’ll continue to get better. He can become an impact guy for us this year.”

On how many home runs he thinks he’ll hit this year:
“I feel like if I just stay consistent that’s the key thing. Last year I had games where I would have three doubles and then the next day I would strike out two times and ground into a double play. I mean, that comes with the game, but just the approach and the physical adjustments that need to be made, I feel like if I can do that then I’ll be able to contribute quite a bit this year. I’m wanting to hit around 10 home runs.”

Senior catcher James Stanfield

On if he is under pressure with a new pitching rotation:
“I wouldn’t call it pressure, but I’m definitely going to have to be more of a presence out there with the guys because they haven’t been in that role. This being my third year catching I know the situations, when I need to calm them down or go to the mound and tell them a joke. Sometimes pitchers can get out of their own head. They don’t realize the situation they’re in or they try to do too much sometimes. So, I’m for sure going to have to be more of a presence and calm them down.”

On the weather being nice for most of the winter so far:
“This is the first time we’ve had snow on the field that might affect practice. The fact that our pitchers have been able to get out there every day and we can face live pitching with our hitters means we’re a lot more prepared. Last year going into TCU, located in a warm weather state, they were outside every day when we had to practice indoors, which makes it a hard matchup. I feel like we have the advantage this year just because we have a lot more reps under our belt and we’re a lot more confident.”

On Tanner Poppe and Robert Kahana at the back end of the bullpen:
“I think it’s a great move. Tanner (Poppe) has been a great weekend guy for us, so moving him to the closer role is great. He has a new cutter to go with his slider and his fastball is up around 91-92 (mph). He has a good mentality, so he’ll be able to come in and close it out. The freshman Robert (Kahana) is a good strike thrower around 90 (mph). He has really good stuff as well. As for the weekend guys, we’re going righty, lefty, righty to mix the lefty in-between and throw the other team off a little bit. I’m really excited about our weekend guys. Two of them haven’t been weekend guys before; Thomas (Taylor) is the most experienced one.”

On his goals for the season:
“Just do what I’ve always done, keep a calm, level head and don’t try to do too much. I’ve got to take the ups as they come and the downs as they come. That’s what I’ve done my whole life and it usually works out pretty well.”

Sophomore pitcher Frank Duncan

On starting Friday nights:
“It’s pretty special for me coming from being a relief pitcher last year and seeing a lot of good players leave. I have some big shoes to fill, especially on Friday nights but I think I’m up for the challenge.”

On facing some of the best pitchers in the country:
“We’re facing some of the best arms in the country and future first-round draft picks so it will be exciting and a lot of fun.”

On the atmosphere for Friday night games:
“It’s the only game under lights that we play in a series and the feeling around it is you have your best pitchers against their best pitchers so it’s the game that you’re really throwing it all out there. Coach (Ritch) Price, coach (Ryan) Graves and Ritchie (Price) all feel confident in me to put me out there in that situation which gives me even more confidence and I’m really excited to be out there.”

On if he will stick with the same pitches as last year:
“I’m probably going to stick with my fastball, slurve, curveball and change-up. What made me so effective last year was that my ability to throw strikes and I think that’s one of the things that Coach Graves really hammered home. So I’ll just use the same pitches – no new tricks up my sleeve – and throw strikes to get ahead and make them hit the pitches that I want them to.”

Junior pitcher Tanner Poppe

On if he’s ever been the relief pitcher:
“I’ve usually been the starter so I’m excited for the change. It pumps me up because there’s so much adrenaline in the eighth and ninth innings so it’s going to be fun.”

On if being the relief pitcher is as unorthodox as Coach Price makes it sound:
“Yeah, it’s a different mindset being out there in the last inning and you get everyone’s best shot so you just have to go out there and be confident and know you’re going to succeed.”

On Frank (Duncan) switching from relief to starter:
“I think starting fits in for Frank a lot more than coming out of the bullpen, because he can throw strikes and that will get us deep into games. He’ll do well as a starter on Friday nights.”

On adding a cutter to his pitches:
“In the fall I just started messing with it and throwing it and it ended up working for me. I’ve been throwing it a lot since then and have been working so I’m excited to see how that works in the games.”

On the starting pitchers:
“I’m excited for all of the starters that we have. Frank is going to get us deep into games on Friday night so I think he’ll have a lot of success and then Wes Benjamin on Saturday is the same type of pitcher, but from the left side so he can mix it up. Sunday we have Thomas (Taylor) who has a lot of experience and he has a good slider so I think all of those guys will succeed.”