KU Baseball Featured in Baseball America

Feb. 17, 2006


Baseball America featured the University of Kansas baseball team in it’s College Weekend Preview on Friday, Feb. 17. <?xml:namespace prefix=”o” ns=”urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office”?>

The article was written by Will Kimmey and reposted with the permission of Baseball America.

Click here to be directed to the article at BaseballAmerica.com.

The Spring Training Classic took place in Surprise, Ariz., last weekend, but the Surprise Teams Tournament happens this weekend in Los Angeles.

No. 15 San Diego gained acclaim–and its first spot in the Top 25 rankings since 2002–by sweeping preseason No. 1 Texas two weeks back, while Kansas made a statement by winning the first two games of a series at Stanford last weekend. Those teams meet Saturday as part of the Public Storage Classic at Dedeaux Field, which also features No. 25 Southern California and Vanderbilt in round-robin play.

San Diego heads to the event at 5-1 following series against Texas and at UC Davis, and seventh-year coach Rich Hill couldn’t be more pleased.

“I would have taken that before you could get the words out of your mouth,” he said. “Now that we’re here, we’re on the ground and we don’t want to stop running. But we don’t validate ourselves on our win-loss record, just how we’re playing.”

There’s no question San Diego has been playing well. The Toreros have followed the plan set out by Hill and recruiting coordinator Eric Valenzuela in building around pitching, and building for this season. That’s the best way to win at a private school, Hill said, cultivating groups of players and dealing with slight rises and slight slips as those core groups come and go.

“San Diego is a team that, like some of those others on the West Coast, always was good and had a good reputation locally, but people didn’t know a lot about nationally,” Kansas coach Ritch Price said. “(Hill’s) been doing a good job out there for a while.”

San Diego won consecutive West Coast Conference titles in 2002 and 2003, and the Toreros have built back up for this season. The lineup regularly features six juniors and seniors seasoned with experience from the WCC and top summer leagues.

“Guys like (junior right fielder) Shane Buschini and (junior shortstop) Steve Singleton and (junior catcher) Jordan Abruzzo have played in real high-profile summer leagues against top players,” Hill said. “Now, when we face high-profile schools, our kids know they can compete against them. They’re like, ‘OK, this is how we roll.’ “

The pitching staff offers two experienced anchors, with junior righthander Josh Butler (2-0, 0.00) and sophomore righty Matt Couch (1-0, 1.50) returning to the rotation after solid 2005 seasons. The addition of freshmen lefthanders Brian Matusz (1-0, 3.00) and Josh Romanski (two saves and a .391 batting average in a dual role that has drawn Mark Kotsay comparisons) has made up for the loss of Justin Blaine (Phillies, sixth round) and Nate Boman (labrum surgery, though he could return by midseason) from the 2005 staff. Butler and Matusz both work in the low 90s and top out near 94. Butler’s changeup and Matusz’ hard breaking ball give each a second plus pitch.

This collection of power arms has allowed 22 runs in six games, though about a third of that total came in a 12-8 Sunday win against Texas. The team ERA drops to 2.86 with that game factored out.

“It’s been awesome, man,” Hill said. “It’s changed so much for us exposure-wise, especially here in San Diego. There are a lot of great players here who used to go up (Interstate) 5 to go to school (in the Los Angeles area), and we’re trying to keep them home. This validates what we’re doing, getting those players and winning.”

Kansas also has found validation in key wins during Ritch Price’s four years there. It has posted three consecutive winning seasons for the first time in school history and looks for a fourth–and its first NCAA tournament bid since 1994–this year. The Jayhawks swept Louisiana State on the road in 2003 and took two of three from eventual national champion Texas last season. The Stanford series was another step in the right direction.

“When you’re trying to rebuild a program and gain respect, wins like that give you credibility right out of the gate,” Price said. “It makes a huge difference recruiting-wise. It’s not the same old Kansas.”

Upon taking the Kansas job after eight years at Cal Poly, Price’s initial plan was to retool with junior college transfers while also following the administration’s wishes of not running off incumbent scholarship players. Success on the field has translated to recruiting success, and now most of the program’s players enter out of high school.

While top hitters Gus Milner (.545-3-16) and Jared Schweitzer (.485-2-6) transferred in following JC careers, the rest of the position players–including center fielder Matt Baty (.343-0-3) and Price’s sons Ritch (.324-0-3) and Ryne (.258-3-12)–were recruited out of high school. A third son, Robby, is on the way to continue the family tradition at Kansas, one that already boasts three sets of brothers: the Prices, Don and Nick Czyz and Sean and Preston Land. Don, a senior, has recorded three saves and worked seven scoreless innings as the closer, while Sean, a junior lefthander, has attracted scouts to each of his starts with a 6-foot-5 frame, 89-93 mph fastball and 2-0, 2.25 record.

These players have played and grown together under Price, who said his team’s winning three of its last four Big 12 Conference series in 2005 foreshadowed this start. Many of his Jayhawks players came to campus at the end of July with shaggy hairdos similar to that of Padres shortstop Khalil Greene–“they call it the flow, with all the hair coming out of their hat,” Price said–and Price said they were allowed to go untrimmed until they lost a series.

Kansas might have trouble staving off the crew cuts before Big 12 play begins, because a March trip to No. 1 Clemson looms after this weekend’s event. But playing a rigorous schedule helps the team in the present and future because of the gains in recruiting and skill development.

“Our administration wants to be good in all sports–not just a power in basketball,” Price said. “They’ve put $1.5 million into our facility and given us the budget to travel and play good teams like Stanford and Clemson. Kids want to play those teams, and you get better by playing them.”

Hill believes in a similar philosophy, with nonconference games against Georgia, Cal Poly, Washington, Rice and Houston still to come. Plus, the games bring the added bonus of a Ratings Percentage Index boost–something important for a team playing in the West Coast Conference, a league that hasn’t received multiple NCAA tournament berths since 1999.

“As you know, we can use all the RPI help we can get out here in the West,” Hill said. “It’s insane, man. I just asked Eric Valenzuela the other day, who scheduled this thing? It looks great on the schedule card and the Internet, but when you get out and play these teams, it’s not easy.”

Opponents are saying the same thing about San Diego and Kansas this year.