439: The Price is right
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LAWRENCE, Kan. – Seven sixth inning runs turned out to be the difference between a somber postgame speech and a Gatorade-soaked frenzy for Kansas baseball, as its head coach, Ritch Price, etched his name and the number – 439 – above Floyd Temple’s as the winningest coach in the program’s history Saturday afternoon.
“Nobody knows how hard this job is more than I do,” Price said. “The best sport played in the Big 12 Conference is baseball. To be here long enough to accomplish that – Floyd coached for 28 years. It is a pretty special day. I just want to thank the players who have played for me and the assistant coaches that have been with me. It has been truly an honor to be the head coach at the University of Kansas.”
The Kansas bats, keyed by a savvy pinch hit decision from Price translated a one-run deficit into an 11-5 advantage over Northwestern State Saturday afternoon at Hoglund Ballpark. The Jayhawks held the Demons at bay through the remaining two innings and claimed the game by a final score of 11-7.
In his 15th season as the Jayhawks’ (4-6) skipper, Price surged past Floyd Temple’s 438 wins over 28 seasons in dramatic fashion by inserting Marcus Wheeler to bat with the bases full of home white jerseys in the sixth inning. Trailing the Demons (3-6), 5-4, with one out, Wheeler took a 2-0 pitch for a ride to left field on a bases-clearing double propelling KU to a two-run advantage.
Wheeler’s at-bat gave the Jayhawks a restored sense of confidence at the plate against the Demons as Devin Foyle followed suit, trading places with Wheeler in the next plate appearance. Rudy Karre all but clinched the milestone victory for Price and the Jayhawks with a three-run shot over the left field wall on the first pitch he saw, 11-5.
“Marcus Wheeler came off the bench and smoked the two-run double to left,” Price said. “That was a huge play in the game to put us back on top, and then Foyle followed and doubled to left field. Obviously, Karre hit the ball out of the ballpark. Those three guys are pretty darn good to hit in the middle of that lineup.”
In what turned out to be a three and a half hour contest, Northwestern State tripled in its first at-bat of the game. An error and wild pitch brought in the game’s first run for the Demons four batters into the first frame.
Kansas answered in the home half of the first to tie up the game early, 1-1. Leadoff hitter Matt McLaughlin ripped the first pitch he saw up the middle and came around to score when Foyle singled to right center. The Jayhawks weren’t done with the first inning scoring. With two outs Jaxx Groshans blooped a single to left field scoring Foyle and Kaimana Souza-Paaluhi, 3-1, in favor of KU.
Northwestern State tied the game in its next inning at the plate. KU starting pitcher Jeider Rincon struggled to keep composure and balked two runners into scoring position at second and third before a double down the right field line scored both Demons, 3-3. Kansas surrendered the lead on a rope to left field, 4-3, prompting Jackson Goddard (1-0) to enter the game on the mound. With Goddard on the hill, Kansas knew it was in good hands with its sophomore hurler.
“The key to the ballgame was the effort from Jackson Goddard from the bullpen,” Price said. “He has electric stuff and we have been waiting for him to take that next step in his development. He pitched four and 2/3 innings and only gave up a run and gave us a chance to get back in it. I thought the whole key to the game today was Jackson Goddard’s performance.”
The Demons tacked on another run in the fifth to claim a two-run lead, but the Jayhawks cut the deficit to one as McLaughlin walked and later rounded the bases, 5-4.
In the all-crucial sixth inning, McLaughlin was intentionally walked to fill the bases with Jayhawks when Price called Wheeler’s number to generate a quality at-bat. Wheeler’s double sparked the Kansas offense into three-straight shots to left field, essentially wrapping up the game with a six-run lead.
“We knew we wanted to do something special for him because he’s a legend,” Karre said. “He’s our hero. He’s for us and he treats every one of us like we’re his own. We knew before the game we needed to play hard and we needed to have a big day for him. We did it for Skip today.”
Northwestern State refused to go down quietly, adding two runs in the top of the eighth to keep the contest interesting, but Stephen Villines entered on the mound in the eighth – all but guaranteeing a Jayhawk victory, a cold bath and a tear-inspiring tribute video for the program’s winningest coach.
“The video was really emotional,” Karre said. “Just seeing how many players’ lives he touched and what he meant to them, it was pretty special to see his reaction. He is a great coach and deserves every moment like this.”
Kansas goes for the three-game sweep against Northwestern State Sunday, March 5. First pitch from Hoglund Ballpark is slated for 1 p.m.
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