Big Bookend Innings Lift Jayhawks Over Mountaineers, 9-5

Final Box (.pdf) | Notes (.pdf)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Big first and last innings lifted the Jayhawks over West Virginia for the fifth-straight regular season game dating back to last year, as Kansas takes game two and the series against the Mountaineers Saturday afternoon at Monongalia County Ballpark.
The Jayhawks (19-24, 6-8 Big 12) struggled at the plate in seven of the nine innings, but luckily a five-run outburst to start the game, a four-run ninth to end the game and a solid pitching performance from senior righty Drew Morovick (4-3), junior right-hander Sam Gilbert and sophomore sidearm slinger Stephen Villines pushed KU to their third-straight win, the first such streak of the season.
“It was nice to see our guys grind and compete and find a way to go to a really tough place to play and win a road series,” head coach Ritch Price said.
The five-run first came with two outs when senior right fielder Dakota Smith and redshirt-sophomore designated hitter Marcus Wheeler decided to clutch up for some big hits. Smith drilled a two-run single to right field while Wheeler blasted a three-run bomb to left to get things going.
Senior left fielder Connor McKay led all hitters with a 4-for-5 performance at the dish, while Wheeler drove in a team high and career-best three RBIs.
The first inning saw the Jayhawks put a crooked number on the board, with the aid of an error by West Virginia. Senior second baseman Justin Protacio grounded to shortstop for the routine out, but the Mountaineer was unable to cleanly field the ball and Protacio was safe.
McKay followed Protacio up with a walk and after a strikeout by freshman shortstop Matt McLaughlin, the Mountaineers elected to walk cleanup hitter Michael Tinsley to load the bases. The strategy nearly worked, striking out senior first baseman Blair Beck, but Smith poked a ball into shallow right field to fire the open salvo, scoring two runs.
“They load the bases then Beck gets punched out,” Price said. “Smith’s two-out two-run single was huge to get runs on the board and give us a chance to breath.”
Into the batter’s box stepped the designated hitter, Wheeler, who took the second pitch he saw soaring over the left field wall for his second-career dinger to push the Kansas lead to 5-0.
“Wheeler just smoked the ball to left field,” Price said. “He got a pitch elevated and made a great release on it and I couldn’t be happier for that young man.”
Morovick had virtually no problems with the West Virginia order until the fourth inning when he gave up a solo homer to allow the Mountaineers to cut into the lead, 5-1.
Kansas struggled to find its rhythm after the first inning, as Mountaineer starter Ross Vance (6-3) found his groove and shut KU down other than a few harmless hits. Vance struck out nine Jayhawks in six total innings before being replaced for the seventh by reliever Conner Dotson, who picked up where Vance left off setting Kansas down in order in the seventh.
“Their starter was as good-as-advertised,” Price said. “You see the five-spot in the first inning and then that guy was lights out after that. He dominated our left handed hitters. We had some really bad at bats against him. I look at the strikeout totals he goes six innings and strikes out nine. We didn’t get a hit from a left hander until Protacio singled in the sixth. He was really good on the mound today.”
Morovick started the bottom of the seventh off by hitting a batter and with one out, gave up his second homer of the game. The shot would lead to Price making the call to the bullpen to bring in reliever Gilbert for the second-straight game.
Gilbert did his job and retired the next two batters to get out of the inning and limit the damage to just the two runs. He faced just three batters in the eighth after a catch at the wall by Smith and doubling the runner off after he forgot to touch second on his way back to first base.
“My compliments to Morovick and Gilbert,” Price said. “They set the table for us to only use Villines one inning after he pitched two innings yesterday. It all goes back to starting pitching and Morovick was good again today.” 
The Jayhawks tacked on two more in the ninth inning off a pinch hit double down the right field line by sophomore Joven Afenir to stretch the lead to 7-3.
Following a hit by pitch by junior third baseman Tommy Mirabelli, Protacio slapped a ball into right field to drive in another run, 8-3.
McKay went to the plate after Protacio and raked his fourth hit of the day, a double to right field to score the ninth and final run for Kansas.
Price brought in Villines in the non-save situation to pitch the bottom of the ninth, trying to tie up the series victory and take the Jayhawks’ third-straight victory.
Villines struggled a bit after a being lights out Friday night, giving up two solo homers to give West Virginia a total of four blasts on the day, but the rally was cut short and Kansas came out on top, 9-5.
Kansas goes for the series sweep Sunday, April 26 at 1 p.m. Fans can tune into the Jayhawk Radio Network via to listen to the game live or watch a free video stream available at  The official online source for Kansas Athletics, Williams Education Fund contributions, tickets, merchandise, multimedia, photos and much, much more.