Kansas Baseball Holds Annual Media Day

Full Press Conference (.mov)

 Kansas baseball players listen while
Price addresses the media.LAWRENCE, Kan. – With the 2015 baseball season opening on Friday, the Jayhawks hosted their annual media day Wednesday afternoon. Head coach Ritch Price and student-athletes Blair Beck, Connor McKay, Justin Protacio, Dakota Smith and Colby Wright were available to speak to the media and preview the upcoming season.

Head Coach Ritch Price
Opening Statement:
“Like every team in the country that is preparing to open up Friday, we are excited to get started. The NCAA gives us 45 days in the fall for 27 practices, so you literally scrimmage each other about 20 times in the 45 day window. One of the things that happens is that you get sick and tired of playing the same guys. I think our hittersknow our pitchers’ tendencies and our pitchers know our hitter’s tendencies. Our hitters even know how coach (Ryan) Graves likes to attack them. It is one of the most unique things about Division I baseball. When I started (coaching), you used to be able to play other Division I programs in the fall and you could play junior colleges in the fall. It literally makes it a grind to go through that process. We just finished our fourth weekend of scrimmage games against each other yesterday and quite honestly, I think it was the worst one we had since we started in January. The whole team was flat, we need to play somebody in a different jersey and a different environment. I think I speak for everybody that we are ready to get started and start the grind and start the journey.”
“With that being said, D.J. asked me to give you a little bit of an overview on our team. We finished the regular season last year in the top-25. We finished third in the second-best conference in the country. We had six players drafted, which tied for third-most in the country out of the 304 Division I schools that play baseball. We lost some really good players. If you look at our weekend rotation, we lost all three starting pitchers. We also lost our closer, Jordan Piché, who also got drafted. The top-four guys on our team are now playing professional baseball. That was the most experienced part of our team last year, but it is the most untested part of our team this year as we head into the 2015 season. We have some huge challenges ahead of us as far as replacing those outstanding players. At the same time, we were really young position wise and now that is the most experienced part of our team. It has been really fun to watch our team play in our scrimmage games. We are athletic; have real nice combination of left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters. The flat-seamed baseball change that you all have been reading about. There was a great article today where several of the prominent coaches in America were quoted and I loved Coach Schlossnagle’s assessment from TCU. Basically that bat change has destroyed college baseball the last three years. The new ball I think has changed the game again to where college baseball is fun again. We are hitting balls out of the ballpark, we are hitting balls up the gap and not only are they doubles now, they are out of the ballpark where they would have been caught. I think it will bring the scoring back up in our game and I think it is a great change for college baseball. I know I am excited about it. I am excited about the players you see sitting in front of you. I think they have the talent to play in the Big 12 Conference. They have the talent to get us back in the top-25. There is some maturity in the room. I really like our team a lot. I like our team offensively, I like our team defensively, it will just take some patience on our coaches’ part and our team’s part as we develop our young guys into new pitching roles. I think before we are done, we have a chance to be a very good baseball team.”
On the expectations going down to No. 2 LSU this weekend:
“I am really excited to see how our players respond in that environment. It will be our third trip to LSU. I compare it to Allen Fieldhouse. Where Allen Fieldhouse is the Mecca of college basketball and the greatest environment to play in the country, that is what Alex Box Stadium is like at LSU. The games are completely sold out, 11,000 tickets. Their fans are unbelievable, they are right on top of you. They just bury your left fielder, your right fielder and your starting pitcher warming up in the bullpen. The passion of the fans is something that gives you goosebumps when you walk in there. If you are competitive, there isn’t a better place in America to play than Alex Box Stadium. I am hopeful that our players rise to the challenge. The reason I put it on the schedule was so they had the opportunity to play in that great environment, but also for the growth that would take place for our club over the three days. Our goal is to play better each day of the weekend. One of the things they teach you in Division I baseball is when you go on the road and you play the No. 2 team in the country – don’t get swept on the road. The benefit of the RPI the rest of the season is off the charts. At the same time, Division I baseball is about winning the series. We are going to approach it like we always do. We are going to go down there and try to play the same level they play at and find a way to grind through the thing and win a series. If we get to Sunday and we dropped the first two, lets find a way to salvage the weekend and win on Sunday. Its all about Sunday in Division I baseball.”
On being successful against some really good LSU teams:
“It’s been a lot of fun. I jokingly tell people I think I had a five-year ban after we went down there and won the series when they were No. 1 in the country in 2010. Its my favorite place I have ever played. I am excited to take these young men to Alex Box Stadium.”
On the process of moving on from a regional experience:
“I think what takes place is that every team is completely different. I think for the young men sitting up here who played last year in that regional at Louisville, they are disappointed we didn’t win. Honestly, we were in position to win. We had Frank Duncan pitching on Saturday after we beat Kentucky in the opening game. He was our best guy and we have him pitching against a freshman and we left the bases loaded four times and we didn’t catch the ball as well as we normally catch the ball. The sad part about it is we were in position to win the gosh darn thing and good enough to win it, we just didn’t play well enough on that day. The hard part for our team is knowing if we would have won that thing, we would have been able to host the super regional the next weekend with the upsets that took place across the country. That is devastating to think we could have hosted the super regional and knocked on the door to go to Omaha. I do believe there is value to playing there and I think the fact that all these young men experienced it, we will not be intimidated at LSU. The one great thing about playing at KU is when you play in the Big 12 and you are scared, you are in the wrong conference. It is a man’s conference. You come here to play in one of the two-best leagues in America.”
On getting back to the regional and consistency:
“Traditionally, when we have juniors and seniors we have really good teams. Then we start the process over again and develop, and it is hard to win in our league with freshmen. I am hopeful our players are good enough to where we can kind of protect our pitching staff early. We will find out if we are good enough offensively until our pitching develops to stay in the hunt.”
On if he is nervous with the youth this weekend:
“Without question. That is the unknown. When Drew Morovick walks off the mound and the first time we go to the bullpen, somebody is going to come out of the bullpen who hasn’t pitched at Texas or who hasn’t pitched at the Louisville Regional, they are all going to be untested arms. That is the unknown. Some of those guys are going to rise to the occasion and are going to embrace the environment. Then there will be somebody who is going to struggle and could have a nightmare inning.”
On the Big 12 preseason rankings as motivation:
“I know the guys took it personal last year when they were picked last. My young assistant says it best, ‘It is the good old boys networking in the Big 12.’ You have the four Texas schools and the two Oklahoma schools that recruit all the Texas guys, they all vote for each other. It happens every single year. I think we all look at what happens with our basketball team, they are always voted first. Obviously, Coach (Bill) Self has won 10 in a row, but this is perceived as a basketball school. We are trying to be successful in baseball. It is not going to change. The same thing happened when (Mark) Mangino was here and we were good in football. We were always picked in the bottom of the standings. You just go out and overachieve. That is how we prepare.”
On the importance of being a successful program at KU:
“I think it is a great statement on how far our athletic department has come the last few years. Volleyball made the NCAA Tournament the last two years and I think we had five or six teams make the NCAA Tournament and don’t get me wrong, we are all proud of our basketball team, but it overshadows everything else that takes place on this campus. I know our players are about baseball, that is what their focus is, as it should be.”
On the two guys who will throw Saturday and Sunday:
“I am going to pitch the junior college transfer Ben Krauth on Saturday and put a southpaw between the two right handers. Sean Rackoski, the sophomore, is going to pitch Sunday, he has actually been really good the last four weekends out. He only pitched three innings all of last year. To show you the progress he has made, he went from pitching three innings to being the Sunday starter on opening weekend. I am excited to see him pitch. I actually think he has the most electric stuff on our team. If he pitches like he has been in our intrasquad games, we have a really good chance to win Sunday. He has been by far the most electric guy on our team to hit against. But he has to throw strikes.”
On Drew Morovick being ready to be the Friday starter on the mound:
“Drew won 10 games last year. We would start him on Tuesday and then on proper days off, we would pitch him on the weekend again. He was magnificent for us. He ties for the Big 12 Conference lead in wins for the season. He pitches to contact which is number one the reason why we could use him multiple times during the week. He keeps his pitch count down and has a really good changeup for a right-handed pitcher. He has a pitch to negate the left-handed hitters and his breaking ball was better this fall. He was actually pumping more guys out this fall because of it. That is going to be the key if he can be a weekend starter for us. His breaking ball is going to have to be an out-pitch where he can get out of trouble with the strikeout. That is the one thing he hasn’t quite shown yet is his ability to strike hitters out.”
On Ryan Ralston and his role as a freshman:
“He has a chance to be an impact player for us. Unfortunately, he had a stress fracture in his back in the fall. He only made two appearances and maybe pitched three innings. It really set him back. Friday, he was really good. He has a really good breaking ball. He has a body like a Greek God and it comes out of his hand really easy. He has a chance to be a first-five-round draft pick before he leaves here. He is making the transition from being a position pitcher from high school and quarterback on his football team and point guard on his basketball team to being a full-time pitcher. He has tremendous upside. We are really excited about his future. Once the light bulb clicks and he commands both pitches, he has dominant stuff.”
On the facility upgrades to Hoglund Ballpark:
“It has been really fun to be a part of. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we have made some huge facility improvements again this offseason. Each and every year, Hoglund Ballpark keeps becoming a better place to play and a better place to develop as a player. The new turf mounds turned out fabulous. We replaced the turf on the infield and it has been outstanding to play on. The new outfield wall panels, they have all the new KU and Jayhawk logos so it is modernized and cool-looking I guess is what they call it. It looks really great.”
On the grass infield:
“We were able when softball moved out to Rock Chalk Park, our Deputy Athletics Director Sean Lester let us convert that to a PFP (Pitchers Fielding Practice) infield. So we put in grass and dirt and made it a regulation infield so we can practice over there and take ground balls on dirt and grass when we go to a team that has that on the weekend. It’s a huge upgrade and our pitchers use it for PFP practice so we are more efficient. It has been a great upgrade for our program.”
On Blair Beck being named team captain:
“I am a baseball rat guy. That term means there is no other place you would rather be than going to the ballpark. All day long, you just wait to get to the park. You are the first one there and one of the last guys to leave. You come in nights and you come in weekends. He is a baseball rat. This guys lives for the game. I think the second part of that is it is about being a great teammate. It is easy to go to the ballpark every day when your name is in the lineup card and you are a star player. To be a great teammate, you want to be the same person no matter if you are playing or you are not playing, no matter what your role is. He is a great Jayhawk.”
On Stephen Villines as the closer:
“He velocity is up. With his hard work in the weight room, I think he has picked up about three mile-per-hour on his fastball. He has that unique delivery which is really deceptive from the side. He also has improved his breaking ball. The stats show that he has been throwing that firmer than a year ago. The greatest thing about Stephen Villines is that he Southern California makeup and swagger. He thinks he is really good. He is really cool. I guarantee he is not afraid to play Friday night.”
On what he envisions the identity of the team to be:
“One of the great things we have done here with our players over my tenure is we are really professional. We go about our business every day, we prepare properly. We have a term, enjoy the grind. You have to have a baseball mentality to be that kind of person. I think that is the reason why we have been successful. Our players like each other. Our chemistry in our clubhouse is really good. We don’t have prima donnas. That is one of the things I enjoy most about being at Kansas. You have kids with the Midwest values that work hard and love where they play and the name on the front of their jersey. All those mentality things give you a trait and that is what our trait is. We play every day. We compete every day. I try to control my emotions to where if you get beat on Friday you can’t tell on Saturday. You have to flush it one day to the next. I think the one thing we are proud of is that we play with a professional attitude. It is based on work ethic. We play defense. We execute our short-game assignments. That is what we hang our hats on is going about our business in a professional way.”
On how Michael Tinsely has developed as a player:
“I think that is the one question mark on our team defensively. Michael Tinsely is a really talented young man. In the 12 years that I have been here, he has a chance to be as good of a hitter as we have ever had at the University of Kansas. He is also really athletic. He is one of those rare catchers that can run. He smoked a triple in the right field corner yesterday and was flying around the bases like he is a leadoff hitter. He is an outstanding left-handed hitter with really good makeup. He is our best receiver right now and our best blocker, but we need him to be more consistent throwing behind the plate in order to control the running game of our opposition. The two freshmen catchers both have really good arms, T.J. Martin and Tanner Gragg. They are both freshmen from Kansas and both profiled to be professional baseball players. They are physical and stocky and strong. They have really good arms, but just need to be able to develop to where their bat can catch up with their skillset, which I think will take place. Certainly, for us to be the best baseball team we can be, that needs to be his (Tinsley) primary position. He is going to hit in the four hole and he is a huge key.”
On the possibility of swapping catchers to stop the run against good running teams:
“We have had that discussion as a coaching staff. If he throws good and gets the ball out of his glove and is accurate, we are going to be fine. We are fortunate that all three of our weekend guys are really quick to the plate. Drew Morovick is really quick to the plate. He slide steps and has great feet for a guy who is 6-foot-5. He holds runners but he gets the ball to the plate in under 1.2 seconds. You don’t have to have a plus-arm, as long as you get rid of the ball and are accurate. Ben Krauth the left-hander has a phenomenal pickoff move. He is going to control the running game and Sean Rackoski also slide steps and gets the ball to the plate in under 1.2 seconds. All three of our weekend guys help Michael control the running game. We do have some other guys, in all honesty, that he is going to have a very difficult change of throwing guys out unless they get him the ball quicker.”

Senior outfielder Connor McKay
On playing in front of 11,000 screaming fans:
“It’s going to be a blast. I think it is going to be a lot like Mississippi State when we played there (in 2012), just a lot more people. I am really excited for it, it’s going to be great.”
On LSU’s weekend starting pitchers:
“It is going to be exciting, because like I said that crowd is going to be crazy. They could go both ways, their cheering could make their pitchers nervous since they are so young. They play in the SEC, it’s a fastball conference, they are going to come at us with the fastball and we are a good fastball hitting team.”
On KU’s relatively unproven pitching staff:
“I like the word unproven because it makes them seem like the underdog, but at the same time, we have seen glimpses of them in the fall and if they can be consistent like that, they are going to be really good. (Ryan) Jackson, (Ryan) Ralston, if those guys can stay healthy and consistent they will be good for us, especially Hayden (Edwards), if he can keep focus and take strides like he has been, he will be a good weapon for us too.”
Senior shortstop Justin Protacio
On playing in a stadium like Alex Box Stadium:
“Growing up, when you think about college baseball, that is the ideal place of playing. Those big environments like LSU, Texas, those big schools with cathedrals of stadiums. It is going to be awesome, we are really excited.”
On expectations for the weekend:
“I just want to see us go out there and be fearless. The crowd is going to be crazy, that’s a given, so just getting comfortable in an uncomfortable environment and seeing those young guys throw strikes and the offense swinging the bats like we always do.”
On providing advice for the young guys about playing in a wild atmosphere:
“When I got my first start as a freshman it was down at Mississippi State, which is a pretty similar environment to LSU. I was pretty shaken up and couldn’t really think. I think I will have a good time talking to the young guys starting in the field, telling them what I went through, what to expect and how we can overcome that as a team.”
Senior first baseman Blair Beck
On playing in front of LSU’s crowd:
“I can’t wait. It is going to be a really fun time. Especially being on the field with (LSU’s Alex) Bregman and a few other guys I played summer ball with, it is going to be fun. I don’t think I am nervous, I just want it to get here already.”
On improving his game this year:
“I didn’t swing the bat as well as I am capable of last year, so I’m working to improve my hitting and staying out of two-strike counts. Colby (Wright) and I are in the cages after practice for an hour or two working on getting better. I am working on getting better defensively also, this is my second year playing first base, I am getting more comfortable with the position, but there is work to be done there as well.
On LSU’s young pitchers:
“Those young guys are always fun to hit against. These guys haven’t played in front of that big crowd either, so they are going to be really amped up, have a lot of live arms. It is going to be a lot of fun to face them, we just have to go in and keep our approach and I think we will be good.”
Junior second baseman Colby Wright
On finally getting the season started at LSU:
“I’ve been excited to go down to LSU since August when the schedule came out.  It is a place every kid always dreamed of going to play. Like Coach said, it is the Allen Fieldhouse of college baseball. It is going to be fun to hear their fans talk smack and hear what they have to say to us, and it is going to be a lot of fun to go up against those guys and I can’t wait to get started. It is going to be good for our RPI and it will be good to see what our freshmen have.”
On their fan base:
“It is the reason I came to Kansas, I came from California. Obviously there is Stanford, there’s Cal, there is USC, but as we call it in California, those are more of a golf clap kind of crowd. I came to the Midwest to enjoy that type of college atmostphere. It is going to be fun to come out and hear them screaming at you and have them test your patience but I am really excited.”
On what he hopes to improve on this year:
“Consistency, all around. Offensively, defensively, running the base paths, I got a little bit faster in the offseason. I just want to be a better all-around teammate, by helping the freshmen and the younger guys adjust and develop. I want to minimize the valleys and maximize the peaks.”
Senior outfielder Dakota Smith
On playing in front of big crowds:
“It is a lot of fun to play in that kind of environment. You feel a little more excited and it is fun to play at a place where the fans get into the game like that. I think playing the regional game against Louisville was one of the bigger crowds I’ve played in front of, I’m not sure how many people were there but it was packed. I think LSU’s crowd will be a lot bigger and a lot more rowdy than Louisville’s was. I have had a lot of fun playing in front of big crowds like that.”

The Jayhawk baseball team opens the 2015 season Friday, February 13 at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for a three-game series against LSU.

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