McKay’s Walk-Off Bomb Downs ‘Horns, 5-4
LAWRENCE, Kan. – It took late inning heroics from senior Connor McKay on both defensive and offensive sides of the ball for the Jayhawks to come out victorious over the Texas Longhorns Saturday night at Hoglund Ballpark.
The night after a 14-inning, four-hour loss, the Jayhawks (16-23, 4-7 Big 12) were back at the Hog looking to defend their home field against Texas (20-19, 7-7 Big 12). The energy was apparent before the game when over 20 Kansas baseball alums were celebrated on field and the current players greeted them with smiles and handshakes. The exuberance did not fade and the dugout was louder than it had ever been.
“The great thing about today was that it was alumni day,” head coach Ritch Price said. “We try to honor the players that have played here before. They have seen other players do that when they were younger in their careers. One of the great things that has happened since I have been here and is that we have a great mentality in the dugout.”
With each pitch, chatter and cheers could be heard from the first base side as Jayhawks in the dugout were encouraging their teammates to play with confidence and to have fun, something Price noticed the Texas team had done in the 14-inning game the night before.
“The yelling started with them when the first ball was smoked to left and the Texas dugout thought it was a home run,” Price said. “Our guys responded accordingly when the ball was caught. I actually had a smile on my face. I actually thought it was great energy on both teams. I enjoyed it.”
That energy was off the charts the entirety of the game and hit a peak in the ninth inning. With tensions high and a Texas base runner at second with just one out in the ninth, a ball was blasted to left that look sure to be an RBI-double to put the Longhorns on top, but McKay made a game-saving grab to force the runner to retreat to second after assuming a hit and ultimately leaving him stranded on base.
Two fly-outs to left from the Jayhawks left the game feeling as if it would head to extras like the previous night, but McKay strapped on his cape and used his light-tower power to send a game-winner clanging off the light pole in left field for the walk-off bomb. McKay was greeted at the plate by his Kansas teammates who mobbed him and left him jersey-less as he escaped the chaos.
“It meant a lot to me and my teammates,” McKay said of his walk-off blast. “This team has stuck together through a lot of tough moments this year and we are really battling through all this adversity we are facing. That meant a lot to me and a lot to our team and I am glad I could do it for my teammates.”
The game started with senior right-hander Drew Morovick in trouble early. The hurler gave up a two-out double in the second and surrendered two walks to load the bases for Texas centerfielder Zane Gurwitz who blasted a ball to deep center. Kansas junior Joe Moroney tracked the ball back to the warning track and leaped, but was unable to come down with the ball, and Gurwitz cleared the bases with a triple to break open the scoring, 3-0.
The Jayhawks battled back immediately, with singles from sophomore catcher Michael Tinsley and senior first baseman Blair Beck to lead off the bottom of the second. Sophomore right fielder Joven Afenir grounded out to first and both runners advanced. Senior designated hitter Dakota Smith worked a walk and the Jayhawks had the bases loaded for Moroney. The centerfielder worked a full count before driving a ball to deep center for the sacrifice fly, scoring Tinsley for the first KU run of the game.
With runners at the corners, senior shortstop Justin Protacio swung at the second pitch he saw and singled through the right side to score Beck and bring the Jayhawks within one, 3-2.
It took Morovick just eight pitches to get all three outs in the third inning, but Texas pitcher Ty Culbreth matched him with a quick three-up and three-down of his own.
The Kansas bats came alive again in the fourth inning, with Beck leading off with his second hit of the contest. Afenir was tasked with moving the runner over and did so successfully with a sacrifice bunt. With Beck now on second, Smith doubled to center to drive in the run and knot the game at three.
Morovick found himself in trouble again in the fifth inning, after hitting a batter with one out who advanced all the way to third on a groundout to third base. Another bean-ball put runners at the corners with two away. The senior didn’t let his nerves get the best of him and made arguably the biggest play of the game. Morovick faked a throw to third, turned and picked the runner off at first to get the third out and get out of the jam. The pickoff sparked more excitement from the Jayhawks and Morovick yelled enthusiastically as he trotted to the dugout greeted with high fives from his teammates.
Opportunity knocked for the Jayhawks in the bottom of the fifth. McKay made his way to third after reaching on a fielder’s choice and freshman third baseman Matt McLaughlin was standing at second with two outs. Beck came to the plate with an opportunity to register his third hit of the game and knock in his first RBI, but was unable to answer the call and left the two men stranded.
The Longhorns recorded a leadoff single in the sixth. A sacrifice bunt moved the runner to second but Morovick surrendered his third free pass of the night. With problems looming, associate head coach Ryan Graves made the trip to the mound and brought in sophomore right-hander Sean Rackoski, ending Morovick’s day after five and one-third innings. The reliever walked the first batter he faced to load the bases. A grounder hit to Beck was hit in a spot where Beck was unable to try for the double play and was forced to surrender the run to make the out at first, giving Texas the 4-3 lead.
Getting in and out of jams seemed to be the theme for the Jayhawks and the seventh was no different. Rackoski walked the leadoff batter who advanced to second on a stolen base and made his way to third with a two-out single. Runners at the corners, Rackoski forced a fly-out to center to escape the sticky situation unharmed.
Junior second baseman Colby Wright worked his second walk of the game to lead things off for the Jayhawks in the bottom of the seventh. McKay followed with a single and both runners advanced on a passed ball. McLaughlin came through with arguably his biggest RBI of the season to bring the Jayhawks level with the Longhorns, 4-4.
Junior Sam Gilbert (2-2) came on to pitch the eighth inning for KU, something that is normally done by sophomore Stephen Villines, but with Villines pitching five innings on Friday night, Gilbert was tasked with handling the mound for the high-pressure late-innings.
Gilbert breezed through the eighth inning conceding just a walk to the first batter, but with the Jayhawks going down in order in the bottom half of the frame, he made his way back to the mound for the ninth.
Giving off a leadoff double, things weren’t looking good for the home club, but a big strikeout eased the tension momentarily. Texas right fielder C.J. Hinojosa blasted a ball to deep left that looked to be the dagger, but McKay made an incredible reaching grab to rob the hit and save the Jayhawks from being in a deficit.
“That was one of the best catches he has made in the four years that he has been here,” Price said.
Two quick fly-outs from the Jayhawks made the game feel like it had the makings of another extra-inning game, but McKay, the hero in the previous half inning, trotted to the plate for one final chance. He made the most of the opportunity, taking the first pitch he saw soaring over the left field wall, hitting the light pole 25 feet up for the no-doubt walkoff homer.
“Both of the guys in front of me hit it hard and I looked down to (assistant coach) Ritchie Price and he gave me the green light,” McKay said. “I got a good pitch and I just put a good swing on it. I knew it was gone.”
The rubber-match of the three-game set is slated for 1 p.m. Sunday, April 19, but with the possibility of weather hitting Lawrence, that time may change. Fans can tune into the game live on the Jayhawk Television Network in the state of Kansas and the Kansas City area or on ESPN3 outside the coverage area. For more information on the JTV coverage area, please visit KUAthletics.com/JTV.
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