KU Trumps K-State in Sunflower Showdown Finale, 9-6
LAWRENCE, Kan. – Trailing 5-0 in the bottom of the fourth inning, senior first baseman Blair Beck dropped the hammer on a fastball and sent it deep into the trees in left field to spark a KU rally, as the Kansas baseball team won the Sunflower Showdown finale, 9-6, Sunday afternoon at Hoglund Ballpark.
Beck’s round-tripper sparked back-to-back three-run innings for the Jayhawks to knot the game up, 6-6, into the fifth inning, before Kansas (23-32, 8-15 Big 12) rallied for another three-spot in the seventh frame to take the lead. Beck led KU at the dish with a 2-for-5 effort with a home run, single, two runs scored and a game-high three RBIs; all done in his final game at KU.
“The emotions were really high,” Beck said. “To be down five and come back like that – the toughness we showed was great. I am proud of every one of these guys, and these young guys are going to be fun to watch.”
Beck couldn’t have done it alone as his fellow classmates, senior right fielder Dakota Smith (3-for-5), senior left fielder Connor McKay (1-for-5) and senior second baseman Justin Protacio (1-for-3), had their hands involved in nine of KU’s 14 hits as well as scoring five of the nine runs the Jayhawks plated. Among his three hits, Smith blasted two doubles and scored two runs, while Protacio’s lone hit was a double to left field.
“It was important to end on a positive,” Protacio said. “It means the world to us. It was an emotional game. They beat us the first two games so we really needed this one to win and end on a high note. It was a great team win.”
The Jayhawks hit up the K-State (26-28, 10-14 Big 12) pitching staff for seven extra-base hits, including six doubles and a home run amounting for half of KU’s hit total. Sophomore catcher Michael Tinsley, freshman shortstop Matt McLaughlin and junior third baseman Ryan Pidhaichuk each added a double to Smith’s and Protacio’s three combined.
K-State jumped out to the early 5-0 lead through four innings, after sophomore Sean Rackoski and freshman lefty Blake Weiman combined for just three and two-thirds innings, giving up five runs off four hits and four walks. Junior transfer Sam Gilbert came on to get the final out of the fourth and pitched three innings of relief to keep the Wildcats’ bats at bay.
Almost lifeless in the dugout, the Jayhawks needed a lift from Beck in the fourth inning to give them a chance at avoiding the sweep. Smith led off the frame with a double to left field to set the table for Beck’s two-run bomb to cut into K-State’s lead, 5-2.
Sophomore centerfielder Joven Afenir singled up the middle to start another one-out rally. McLaughlin flew out to right field for the second out of the inning before head coach Ritch Price called to redshirt-sophomore Marcus Wheeler to pinch hit. Wheeler kept it rolling with a single to center to put runners at first and second and send Pidhaichuk to the dish. Pidhaichuk worked a 1-2 count and roped a RBI-double to left to pull within two of the Wildcats, 5-3.
“The reason I coach is to be associated with the players,” Price said. “I am pleased with the way we ended. These guys showed some great resiliency.”
That resiliency ingrained in them by the coaching staff has kept the Jayhawks in a lot of games throughout the season. Today was nothing different. Kansas rallied for another three-spot in the bottom of the fifth to tie it up, 6-6. McKay singled to start off the inning, before Smith doubled through the right side to put runners at second and third with no outs. Tinsley followed suit with a double of his own driving in both ducks on the pond.
After back-to-back groundouts, McLaughlin strutted to the plate with Tinsley at second down a run. The rookie shortstop smoked the first pitch he saw into right field to bring in Tinsley and tie it up, 6-6.
“Every game we go into, Coach Price talks about grinding,” Smith said. “Things started to click and everything really got rolling. It is nice to go out with a win in your last game.”
That win didn’t come easy, as the Jayhawks had to come together for another three runs in the seventh inning to put the game out of reach. The go-ahead run came after Tinsley led the inning off with a single through the right side. He then proceeded to steal second and third base with no outs to put a runner in scoring position for Beck. The senior drilled one back up the middle into center field to put the Jayhakws on top, 7-6.
Kansas added two more insurance runs before sending in its closer, sophomore Stephen Villines, to pitch the final two innings to pick up his 13th save of the year.
“The come-from-behind win was big for us,” McKay said. “It was a really great way to close out the season. We dealt with a lot of stuff this year and it was really nice to go out like that.”
With Baylor winning game one of a doubleheader with Texas Sunday, the Jayhawks have been eliminated from postseason play as they finished ninth in the Big 12 regular-season standings. The conference takes the top eight teams to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a double-elimination tournament where the winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Kansas has qualified for conference postseason play eight of the 13 years Price has held the reins of the program. Prior to 2003 when Price took over, KU had missed the Big 12 tournament six-straight years from 1997-2002. This also marks the first time since 2011 that the Jayhawks did not qualify for the Big 12 Baseball Championship.
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