Kansas clinches Sunflower Showdown series in dramatic fashion

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LAWRENCE, Kan. – On the heels of a four-run bottom of the seventh inning and a two-out three-run double by junior shortstop Matt McLaughlin, the Kansas baseball team accomplished something Saturday afternoon at Hoglund Ballpark it hasn’t done since 2014 – win the Dillons Sunflower Showdown series against in-state rival K-State.
Until that 1-1 swing by McLaughlin, it looked much like Kansas (29-22, 11-9 Big 12) would need a Sunday rubber match to clinch the series as the Wildcats (26-24, 5-15 Big 12) held a 4-1 advantage.
Junior catcher Tanner Gragg had other plans and smoked a leadoff single in the bottom of the seventh to get the rally started. Sophomore centerfielder Rudy Karre and freshman second baseman James Cosentino followed and drew back-to-back walks to load the bases for McLaughlin.
Entering that at bat, McLaughlin was 0-for-7 in the series, and instead of making a pitching change, K-State elected to keep reliever Jared Marolf (4-1) in the game with the bases loaded. That decision proved costly after McLaughlin’s double rolled into the left-field corner allowing all three Jayhawks to score and tie the game up, 4-4.
“McLaughlin didn’t have a hit in the series,” head coach Ritch Price said. “Like a big-time player he is, we load the bases and he lasers the ball in the left-field corner to tie it up. We needed a big swing from one of our best players, and he gave it to us. At this point, I think that might be the biggest swing of the season.”
Sophomore left fielder Devin Foyle moved McLaughlin to third on a ground ball to the right side, and freshman designated hitter Jaxx Groshans drove him in with the sacrifice fly to left. With the one-run lead, it was now in the capable hands of the Kansas bullpen, mainly, right-handed sophomore Zack Leban (3-2).
Leban entered in the top half of the seventh to record the final out, and pitched a scoreless one and 1/3 innings with two strikeouts. He handed the ball to closer Stephen Villines, and it was over. Villines racked up save No. 14 on the season and No. 40 of his career and just like that, the Jayhawks won their eighth-straight game – the longest winning streak since the 2014 squad opened the season 9-0.
“I am proud of the way this team has grinded throughout the season,” Price said. “We have been playing five sophomores and four freshmen a lot. This team has gotten better each month, and right now, this team is playing as well as any team in our conference. We are playing at a really high level.”
That grinded-out win took some toughness after K-State jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in the top of the first. Junior lefty starter Taylor Turski struggled with his command, and allowed four runs through five and 2/3 innings pitched. Turski found a way to strand runners, especially in the second inning after a one-two-three double play with the bases loaded ended a K-State threat of scoring.
Even with the gutsy effort, Kansas still left prime opportunities on the table stranding nine base runners and hitting 3-for-13 with runners in scoring position. However, it only took one swing, and it was McLaughlin pulling through when it mattered the most.
Leadoff: Kansas batted 5-for-8 to lead off each inning, but none was more important than the single by junior catcher Tanner Gragg to get the seventh inning rolling. That one swing sparked a rally to load the bases and bring up No. 3 hitter Matt McLaughlin with a chance to do something special. He did just that and drove a three-run double to the left-field corner and KU overcame a three-run deficit.
The bullpen: The heart and soul of this Jayhawk team, the bullpen has held tough to clinch the squad’s first Sunflower Showdown since 2014. Junior lefties Blake Weiman and Chase Kaplan, sophomore righty Zack Leban and senior closer Stephen Villines have combined to throw six and 2/3 innings and have struck out 11 batters without surrendering a run. More impressively, Villines is 2-for-2 in save opportunities on the weekend and is one away from tying the all-time Big 12 mark set by Huston Street from 2002-04 when he pitched for the Texas Longhorns.
The Jayhawks look for their first sweep of the Dillons Sunflower Showdown since 2004 on Sunday, May 14, when they conclude the three-game series against the Wildcats at 2 p.m. Prior to first pitch, Kansas will recognize its senior class and thank them for all of their contributions to the program the last four years. Fans can watch the series finale on the Jayhawk Television Network or ESPN3, or listen in on the Jayhawk Radio Network via KUAthletics.com/Radio.
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