Kansas bats power past No. 16 Bears

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LAWRENCE, Kan. – In a seesaw battle that saw six lead changes, pinch-hitter Marcus Wheeler had the last laugh in the bottom of the sixth inning when his two-run single tipped the scales against No. 16 Missouri State Tuesday night at Hoglund Ballpark.  
Kansas (23-22) trailed the Bears (30-14), 5-4, in the home half of the sixth when head coach Ritch Price called to his veteran senior Wheeler with runners at second and third and one out. No stranger in this situation as he has connected twice before during the season, Wheeler stroked the first pitch he saw to right field for two RBIs and the final of six lead changes in favor of Kansas, 6-5.
“As soon as I saw Missouri State’s reliever warming up, I knew I wanted to use Wheeler,” Price said. “Wheeler does really well against lefties and they brought in a lefty (Jordan Knutson) so I liked our chances. When he banged the ball to right field ­– that was the difference in the game and he won it for us.”
Wheeler’s two-run single in the sixth may have put the Jayhawks on top for the final time, but it was the defense that kept them in the game after a rough outing from its pitching staff. Redshirt-junior Sean Rackoski started on the bump and lasted just three innings while giving up three runs. Sophomore Blake Goldsberry came on in relief and gave up two runs of his own in two and 1/3 innings of work.
Combined, the duo allowed the Bears’ leadoff man aboard in four of the first five innings they pitched. Had it not been for a season-high three double plays, Missouri State may have broken the game open in the early frames.
“We had to overcome really bad pitching tonight,” Price said. “I don’t think we threw strike one in the first four innings to any hitter. If we don’t turn the three double plays, we might have gotten blown out early. The three double plays allowed us to minimize the damage and get out of it, and then use our studs in the back end of the bullpen.”
Those studs came in and tossed three and 2/3 scoreless innings down the stretch to preserve the victory. Junior Chase Kaplan (3-0) earned the win with 2/3 innings pitched before junior Blake Weiman struck out three batters in two innings of work. Then it was senior closer Stephen Villines picking up his Big 12-leading 12th save of the season.
That save helped Kansas sweep its first season series against the Bears since 2010 and it also snapped a nine-game winning streak Missouri State had strung together heading into tonight’s contest.
“This was a great win,” Price said. “It will help our RPI big-time. Tonight was crucial, especially with how good Missouri State’s RPI is and that they are undefeated in the Missouri Valley Conference. I couldn’t be prouder of this team.”
Junior shortstop Matt McLaughlin played a key role in the sweep effort after a two-run bomb in the first inning broke open the scoring for the Jayhawks. That swing set the tone for an offensive approach that featured seven different players recording a hit – two from off the bench.
McLaughlin and freshman third baseman Benjamin Sems finished as the only two Jayhawks with multi-hit performances, while Wheeler and McLaughlin each drove in two RBIs. Sophomore Ty Denzer added a single off the bench in the seventh inning to tack on an insurance run as Kansas sealed up the victory, 8-5.
Two-run bomb: McLaughlin sparked the Kansas offense in the bottom of the first inning when he hit a hanging curve ball over the wall in left field for his third home run on the season. He has now hit safely in his last four games.
Three double plays: The Jayhawks turned a season-high three double plays in the first, third and fifth innings, respectively. Those not only helped a struggling pitching staff, but limited the combined damage in those three frames to just one run after seven hitters reached base.
The right call: Price called to his bench to bring in Wheeler in a crucial pinch-hit situation. The gamble paid off as he smoked the first pitch he saw to right field to drive in two runs for the Kansas lead, 6-5. That lead held and the Jayhawks went on to defeat the No. 16-ranked Bears, 8-5.
Kansas continues its homestand when it plays host to Texas Southern in a four-game set at Hoglund Ballpark May 5-7.  
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