Veteran bullpen and rookie bats lift Jayhawks over The Citadel
CHARLESTON, S.C. – A two home run fifth inning backed by a strong two and 1/3 innings from ace closer Stephen Villines paced the Kansas baseball team to an opening-day win over The Citadel, 7-5, Friday night at Joe Riley Park.
In the second at bat of his first collegiate start, freshman second baseman James Cosentino blasted a three-run home run over the wall in right field to break open the scoring for the Jayhawks (1-0) in the fifth inning. Sophomore third baseman David Kyriacou followed suit with a two-run shot of his own and Kansas chained the Bulldogs (0-1) for a six-spot in the frame.
“That swing by Cosentino was absolutely huge,” head coach Ritch Price said. “He has tremendous pop in his bat for a freshman infielder and has a chance to be a really good player. That was a professional ballpark and he smoked that pitch like a professional hitter. Then Kyriacou crushed one of his own. That was a complete offensive showing in the fifth inning.”
That six-run cushion proved pivotal in the bottom half of the sixth when redshirt-junior righty Sean Rackoski (1-0) ran out of steam and walked the first two batters he faced in the inning. Rackoski pitched five-plus innings giving up two runs off two hits and three walks in the 64-pitch outing.
Rackoski’s start marked his first nod on the bump for the Jayhawks since May 17, 2015, when he faced K-State the final weekend of the season – 642 days. He missed the entire 2016 season after breaking his thumb on the last day of preseason practice leading into the year.
“It was good to see Rackoski give us five good innings,” Price said. “I would have liked to see him pitch through the sixth, but that is the longest he has gone for us as we have only been working guys out for four innings at a time in the preseason. It is a start he can build on and he could be a difference maker for us.”
The sixth, saw the Jayhawks use three different pitchers to get through the inning. Rackoski started the frame and walked the first two batters he faced. Price then called to freshman righty Ryan Zeferjahn. The rookie faced five batters in his first collegiate appearance, gave up one hit, walked two batters and struck out two. He turned the ball over to junior Tyler Davis for the final out, but not before the Bulldogs hit up Kansas for three runs to cut the lead in half, 6-3.
The Citadel sneaked out two more runs in the seventh to pull within one, 6-5, after junior lefty Blake Weiman gave up a two-out two-run single up the middle forcing Price’s hand to call on his veteran ace reliever, Stephen Villines, to close out the final two and 1/3 innings.
“I told our guys that the stat of the game was two-out RBIs,” Price said. “Our bullpen gave up five runs with two outs, but give them credit as they came in the game in tight spots with runners on base. They got guys out and worked it to two outs, but then we give up the flair down the left-field line, and then the single up the middle. Despite the fact we gave up five runs with two outs, our bullpen still recorded a lot of outs with runners in scoring position.”
Villines proved his worth yet again, after closing the door on the final seven batters to pick up his first save of the season. He boasted perfection retiring all seven he faced by way of three strikeouts, two fly outs and two ground outs. With that outing, Villines moved into a tie with Paul Smyth for second all-time in KU history with 27 career saves.
However, the unsung hero of the evening was senior designated hitter John Remick. The captain, making his first collegiate start in four years, sparked the Kansas offense with a single in the second inning. He followed that up with a hit-by-pitch and started a late rally in the eighth inning to tack on an insurance run for Villines to seal the deal. The veteran reached base in three of his four at bats, putting pressure on The Citadel pitching staff to work with runners on base.
“I was really happy for him, he has been a great Jayhawk the four years he has been in our program,” Price said. “He can be one of the greatest Jayhawks we have ever had from a teammate standpoint. I didn’t give him the start just because he is a senior, he earned it. His approach has been really good and he has been taking the ball the other way. I rewarded him and he earned it. If you go out and perform like he did – performance dictates playing time and he earned it today.”
The win over the Bulldogs increases KU’s all-time opening day record to 75-50-3 and 9-6 under Price. The victory also moves Price’s record at Kansas to 436-402-3, just three wins away from becoming the Jayhawks’ all-time winningest coach (Floyd Temple, 438).
Kansas continues play in the Charleston Crab House Challenge when the Jayhawks face Liberty on Saturday, Feb. 18. First pitch against the Flames is set for 10 a.m. (CST).
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