NCAA Tournament: Jayhawks Prep for Kentucky
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The Kansas baseball team held one final practice in preparation for the No. 2-seeded Kentucky Wildcats Thursday afternoon at Jim Patterson Stadium, host of the 2014 NCAA Baseball Louisville Regional.
The Jayhawks (34-24, 15-9 Big 12) arrived in Louisville, Kentucky, late Tuesday night and had all day Wednesday and Thursday to prep for the Wildcats (35-23, 14-16 SEC) before matching up against them in game one Friday at 1 p.m.
“I think it has been a great experience so far,” Kansas head coach Ritch Price said. “We got in here really late Tuesday night and I actually think it was an advantage. We had a chance to recover yesterday and got an opportunity to work out on the field. Coach (Dan McDonnell of Louisville) was nice enough to let us get out here for an hour and a half – even though it was raining and thundering – and we felt good getting it in.”
After having the chance to practice Wednesday, KU took to the field Thursday during its official NCAA time slot to fine tune the engine one more time in preparation for regional action against Kentucky, a matchup the players are geared up for.
“It’s exciting,” senior centerfielder Tucker Tharp said. “We love to go up against the best. They are in the (South Eastern Conference) SEC, a big powerhouse conference. We like to think of the Big 12 as a big powerhouse conference, too, so it is going to be fun to square off against them.”
This is the first regional appearance for Kansas since 2009 and the first for a senior class that has been striving toward this day since they stepped foot on campus as freshmen.
“It is pretty exciting,” senior catcher Ka’iana Eldredge said. “We have never been here. This is the first time this senior class has been here. It is definitely exciting to be in the postseason and the NCAA Tournament to show the nation what we’ve got.”
Even though the Jayhawks advanced to the postseason, the buzz around Kentucky is the possibility of a Louisville vs. UK matchup on Saturday, something that doesn’t faze the KU players or skipper.
“It’s the town I guess,” Eldredge said. “Louisville and Kentucky are huge rivals. I am sure people around here would like to see that (matchup) in the championship game. We can’t really look into a whole lot of that. We just need to go out and play ball.”
“I don’t look at it like that at all,” Price added. “If they came to our part of the country, the whole focus would be on us; it wouldn’t be on Louisville or Kentucky. Obviously they are great rivals in Kentucky. I respect rivalries.”
Whether being overlooked or not, Kansas used Thursday’s practice session to get the bats going and try to continue the wave of momentum the squad rode down the home stretch of the season.
“We finished pretty strong in the Big 12 (Conference) and won our last nine games,” Tharp said. “I think that really got the ball rolling as far as getting it in our minds that we were actually going to do something special come the end of the year. I definitely think we rode a little bit of a wave coming in here and that is something we need to use toward this regional tournament.”
The Jayhawks’ chances to do something special starts Friday, May 30, at 1 p.m., as the squad takes the diamond at Jim Patterson Stadium for its first regional appearance in five years, hoping prove everyone wrong against the Wildcats.
“I think any time we have gone into a regional and been successful, someone was special on that weekend,” Price said. “We have a guy on our team, Connor McKay, that has as much talent as anyone in America and he has really struggled the last six weeks. He is also the same guy that can come in here and hit three home runs and lead us to a championship. If he has a good weekend, our chances are a lot better.”
Fans can watch Friday’s NCAA Louisville Regional action live on ESPN3 or listen by tuning in to Jayhawk Digital Passport through KUAthletics.com/Showcase, which will offer a free audio feed throughout the duration of the NCAA Tournament.
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Tucker Tharp, Sr., CF, Boulder, Colo.
On the excitement of being in the regional and getting started:
“It is something you work for – I mean, this is the first time our senior class made one of these. It is exciting for our class to be a part of it and it is exciting to keep playing into the postseason and actually have a shot at doing something special.”
On riding a wave of momentum and excitement:
“We finished pretty strong in the Big 12 (Conference) and won our last nine games and I think that really got the ball rolling as far as getting it in our minds that we were actually going to do something special come the end of the year. I definitely think we rode a little bit of a wave coming in here and that is something we need to use toward this regional tournament.”
On the difference down the stretch in the regular season:
“It started on Friday night with our starting pitching. (Jordan) Piche’ has done a really good job in the second half of the season throwing strikes and putting the ball in play, allowing our defense to make plays. When you play behind a guy that throws a lot of strikes, it is really easy to get the offense going. I think it really started on the mound with our starting pitching.”
On the matchup with Kentucky:
“It’s exciting. We love to go up against the best. They are in the (South Eastern Conference) SEC, a big powerhouse conference. We like to think of the Big 12 as a big powerhouse conference, too, so it is going to be fun to square off against them. They have a good first baseman in A.J. Reed, who is up for the Golden Spikes Award. It is going to be fun to go up against some of these guys and show them what we are made of too.”
On the approach Kansas has for postseason play:
“Like I said, it starts on the mound. We thrive on guys throwing strikes, but I think for us it is about executing at the right times, whether it is a bunt or getting the baserunner over. We make sure we do the little things in our small-ball game to get our offense going because once we get guys on base, it comes down to two-out hits.”
On the talk about Kentucky and Louisville and overlooking Kansas:
“We were projected to finish last in the Big 12 this year so we have always kind of been an underdog team. This is just another one of those moments for us. We are going to approach the game the same way and try to not look past anything and start with game one.”
On the familiarity with Kentucky:
“I have watched them a couple times on TV, but it shouldn’t really matter for guys in our dugout as far as what they do or have done. When it comes down to postseason, it is anyone’s game now. You just need to take that positive mindset and see what you can do in game one and move forward.”
On the Jayhawks’ tough stretch in the middle of the season:
“We started off really hot. We started 12-1 and we got guys in the dugout to start thinking we could do something special. Then we had that little low point in our season where we were .500 for about 15 games and guys were a little unsure. Then we started to do some things we hadn’t done the last couple weeks and got that momentum back. It is huge to finish strong coming into something like this because we have never been there. To be confident is huge for our ball club.”
Ka’iana Eldredge, Sr., C, Honolulu, Hawaii
On the excitement of being in the regional and getting prepared to go at it tomorrow:
“It is pretty exciting. We have never been here. This is the first time this senior class has been here. It is definitely exciting to be in the postseason and the NCAA Tournament to show the nation what we’ve got.”
On what everyone should be looking for in Kansas:
“We play hard all nine (innings). We have had our backs against the wall for the past couple games and the last three series in our conference. The captains and I wanted to get the guys together and tell them to have fun and just do the things we do and play hard. Since then we have been playing fundamentally sound, playing hard and having fun. The results have taken care of themselves.”
On sustaining the good play down the home stretch of regular season:
“I think it starts off with examples. You have a guy like (Jordan) Piche’ who goes out there on Friday nights and leads the series off. He has come into a big role since (Wes) Benjamin went down earlier in the season. With Piche’ out there doing his thing, having fun and working hard on the mound, it transitions to the rest of the guys. We have a good team captain in Tucker Tharp who plays hard all nine. It starts by example – this is a good group of guys who like to have fun and be around each other. It is easier said than done, but when you say something to these guys, they buy in and the results take care of themselves.”
On if the team should take risks in the postseason or if it depends on the situation:
“Anytime you get in the postseason things get a little more pressurized. You start to put more pressure on yourself because it is a bigger game. We can’t play like that. We need to go out and play the game of baseball – go back to playing backyard baseball because it is fun. I have been saying this all year – it is all about having fun and being out here with all your brothers and best friends. When you are doing that, whoever is working harder and having more fun, 99.9 percent of the time, is going to win the ballgame.”
On how important pitching and defense is going to be against Kentucky:
“It is really important. Kentucky swings the bat really well from what we can see. You have guys like A.J. Reed and Ka’ai Tom who were First Team All-SEC. Then you have six guys in their lineup who hit over .300 and I think that works to our strengths because Piche’ doesn’t strike out a lot of guys. He keeps the ball down, throws a lot of strikes and pitches to contact and that is what has made him successful all year. Like Coach (Ritch) Price always preaches to us, defense wins ballgames. If Piche’ does his job of keeping the ball down and throwing outs, we just need to make plays behind him. Pitching and defense are absolutely crucial for us to win this tournament.”
On all the talk about the possibility of Kentucky and Louisville playing on Saturday and overlooking Kansas and Kent State:
“It’s the town I guess. Louisville and Kentucky are huge rivals. I am sure people around here would like to see that (matchup) in the championship game. We can’t really look into a whole lot of that. We just need to go out and play ball. If people want to overlook us, it’s fine. It works more to our advantage anyway. You can’t really look into that; you just need to clear your mind and have fun – just go out there and play baseball.”
On the venue:
“It’s cool. It is a great venue. Louisville has been so successful the past couple years – we all watched them go to the College World Series last year. They have been a very successful program, so you see how the atmosphere is cool. Louisville is an awesome town. We have a field that is all turf, so we are used to the all-turf feel. It’s a cool venue and it is going to be cool to see what kind of crowd they bring out. Like I said, this is our first time in an NCAA regional, so I am sure it is going to be a packed house and a lot of fun.”
Head coach Ritch Price, 12th season, Third regional appearance at KU
On starting NCAA play and what he got out of the players this week:
“I think it has been a great experience. We got in here really late Tuesday night and I actually think it was an advantage. We had a chance to recover yesterday and got an opportunity to work out on the field. Coach (Dan McDonnell of Louisville) was nice enough to let us get out here for an hour and a half – even though it was raining and thundering – and we felt good getting it in. We had a weight workout, a chance to rest and then had a team dinner. We visited the Louisville Slugger Museum yesterday and it was a great experience for our guys. It is interesting, you take 18-22 year olds into that museum and they are like little kids. It was a lot of fun, and obviously we are looking forward to tomorrow.”
On the mindset of the team:
“I think one of the great things that happens when you play in the Big 12 Conference is that you play one national power after another each week. You play top-25 teams multiple weeks in a row. You know you are prepared for this type of venue and opportunity. I think our players look at it like that. It is a great opportunity. It is a great regional. You’ve got two teams that are national powers (in Kentucky and Louisville) and at the same time, Kent State played in the College World Series two years ago.”
On what got Kansas going to win the last nine games in conference play:
“(Jordan) Piche’s emergence as a Friday-night starter gave us three quality starters on the weekend. In our conference, you can’t win series if you don’t have three outstanding weekend starters because you are going to get beat up one of the three days. It was an interesting transition. I moved him because he was a senior, is a great competitor and has outstanding stuff. He had experience in junior college as a starter before I moved him to the closer’s role. He was First Team All-Big 12 as a junior and I think the makeup that it takes to pitch the eighth and ninth inning is why he has been successful on Friday night. He solidified our weekend rotation for us. In all honesty, he got bombed his first Friday night against Kansas State and we lost 10-0. They lit him up – he gave up two bombs. But we bounced back to win Saturday and Sunday. He got better each weekend as the season went on. Now, he has been really special here down the stretch.”
On the sense of urgency in the NCAA Tournament:
“I think any coach in America will tell you that you have to win game one. It is really hard to come through a loser’s bracket when you start pitching game four and game five. Then you are looking at starters who have had very limited roles throughout the course of the season. You have to win game one – that is our take on the whole thing. We are one of those unique teams, we don’t have a premiere Friday-night guy like we had with Kodiak Quick or some of the other guys we had in the past. We have three quality guys who are better than average and we are just going to keep them in their same roles. I know that’s the big question every team in America is asks when you have one premiere guy – ‘Do you throw him game one or game two?’ We are going to come in and just stick to our normal routine.”
On Kentucky not throwing its ace vs. Kansas on Friday:
“I can completely understand. He (Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson) has played Louisville throughout the course of the season. He knows who matches up best with their club and gives them the best opportunity to win. Whether you pitch him (A.J. Reed) Friday night or Saturday, you still have to win your first two games. I understand completely what he is doing and I don’t feel disrespected by it at all. If we had a premiere guy, he would be running him out here against us. The thing that we do best is that we just grind and compete. We are in almost every baseball game that we play.”
On the Jayhawks being overlooked in the Louisville Regional:
“I don’t look at it like that at all. If they came to our part of the country, the whole focus would be on us; it wouldn’t be on Louisville or Kentucky. Obviously, they are great rivals in Kentucky. I respect rivalries.”
On if people should be looking out for someone special this weekend:
“I think any time we have gone into a regional and been successful, someone was special on that weekend. We have a guy on our team, Connor McKay, that has as much talent as anyone in America and he has really struggled the last six weeks. He is also the same guy that can come in here and hit three home runs and lead us to a championship. If he has a good weekend, our chances are a lot better. Our core guys need to produce: Tucker Tharp needs to produce; Michael Suiter needs to produce; Dakota Smith and Ka’iana Eldredge, if we don’t get production from those core guys in our lineup, we are going to be in trouble.”