NCAA Tournament: KU Offense Powers Past No. 22 Kentucky, 10-6
Louisville, Ky. – Three hours and 22 minutes of weather delays didn’t faze the Jayhawks as the Kansas baseball team beat Kentucky at its own game, 10-6, using its big-time offense to silence the Wildcats Friday evening at Jim Patterson Stadium in game one of the NCAA Louisville Regional.
Kansas (35-24) faced a 20 minute lightning delay prior to first pitch, an hour suspension of play with two outs in the first inning and then a two hour and two minute postponement in the bottom of the fifth to tack on an extra three hours and 22 minutes against Kentucky (35-24) in an already three hour and 14 minute contest.
“That was one of the most unusual games I’ve ever been involved in,” Kansas head coach Ritch Price said. “I don’t know if I’ve seen two delays as long as those two were, and I was really proud of the toughness our team showed and the competitiveness they showed to be able to fight through those delays and execute offensively.”
Offensive execution was the name of the game. Kansas pounded out 13 hits against a team that relies more on its offense than pitching to win games, but ended up being beat at their own game. Senior centerfielder Tucker Tharp boasted a 3-for-5 performance at the dish with three RBIs and a run scored, while junior shortstop Justin Protacio finished the day with two walks, an RBI and three runs scored.
“You look at that line score; he (Tharp) had three hits and three RBIs today,” Price said. “He was a big-time player. You can make the statement at the end of the game, ‘he was the best player on the field today.'”
Tharp may have been the best player on the field, but the KU squad was matched up against a team who boasts the National Player of the Year in that of pitcher/designated hitter A.J. Reed, who was no match for the Kansas pitching staff Friday night.
The Jayhawk pitchers held Reed hitless (0-for-2) in both RBI situations, however, they managed to walk the southpaw two times. Kansas senior righty Jordan Piche’ sat Reed down swinging with a runner on in the third, before junior right-hander Drew Morovick (10-4) induced the fly-ball out in the seventh with a runner on to tame the Wildcat.
“I wasn’t going to throw anything he had a chance of elevating,” Morovick said. “I trusted Gravey (Kansas pitching coach Ryan Graves) and his pitch calling. I knew I could just go out there and attack the guy.”
Attack is just what Morovick did when he entered the game in the bottom of the fifth inning after a two-hour rain delay halted KU starter Piche’. The hurler tossed three and one-third innings of relief for the win, allowing just two walks and a hit in the 50-pitch effort.
“Morovick came out of the bullpen and put up the three zeroes to give us a chance to get the lead back,” Price said. “It’s a great win for the University of Kansas.”
The win started right from the beginning when Kansas put up back-to-back three-spots in the first and second innings, with a little help from two Kentucky errors.
The Wildcats got the momentum back with a three-spot of their own, before adding a run in the third and two runs in the fourth. However, the Jayhawks stole back the thunder in the sixth inning after a huge double play that ended with an absolute hose from junior left fielder Michael Suiter to senior catcher Ka’iana Eldredge to get the runner out at the dish.
“I wasn’t expecting him to go, I was expecting a bluff,” Morovick said. “When he took off I started heading back to the mound and I saw he wasn’t breaking so I stood there and I had a perfect view of it. It was a beautiful throw by Suiter and a great block of the plate by Ka’iana. That sprung us in the game and that was a huge momentum swing right there.”
That double play lit a fire under Kansas and the squad rallied to score two runs in the seventh and two more runs in the eighth inning to put the game out of reach. Price called to his closer, freshman Stephen Villines, to come in and close out the last five outs for the Jayhawks, which he did, giving up one hit while recording a strikeout.
KU is back in action Saturday, May 31, as the squad plays No. 1 Louisville at 4 p.m. Fans can watch the action live on TV on ESPN2 or on ESPN3 acessible online at WatchESPN.com, on smartphones and tablets via the WatchESPN app, thorugh ESPN on Xbox Live to Gold Members and on Apple TV. Fan can also tune in and listen to Jayhawk Digital Passport through KUAthletics.com/Showcase for a free audio stream.
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Head coach Ritch Price, 12th season, Third regional appearance at KU
“First off that’s one of the most unusual games I’ve ever been involved in. I don’t know if I’ve seen two delays as long as those two were, and I was really proud of the toughness our team showed and the competitiveness they showed to be able to fight through those delays and execute offensively with our short game. It was a pretty complete performance by our club on the offensive side of the ball, and on the defensive side. Obviously (Drew ) Morovick came out of the bullpen and put up the three zeroes to give us a chance to get us the lead and the young freshman Stephen Villines came in and did what he does. So obviously it’s a great win for the University of Kansas.”
On playing on artificial turf with the rain:
“If that would have been a dirt and grass field, that game would have been called in the first inning. There is no way any park in America could have handled all the rain that took place.”
On Kansas moving forward with its pitching staff:
“We are kind of in a different situation than Kentucky was. He (Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson) had an opportunity to match up his starters against our right-handed hitters. My model is to have five left-handed hitters in our lineup and we only have two. That tells you how good of a job I did recruiting. (chuckles). I know Coach Henderson looked at our right-handed dominant lineup and used his right handers. He used three of his best guys today to try and negate our right handers. I wasn’t surprised at all when he saved the left hander for tomorrow. I certainly didn’t take any offense to it. For us, we have three quality guys, we don’t have a superstar like him (A.J. Reed). Our best guy pitches tomorrow and the kid that pitches on Sunday has the best arm in our program, but his command isn’t quite as good as the other two guys. For me, there was never doubt about who we were going to pitch. We were just going to stay in our normal routine and run them out there Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I don’t want to compliment Kentucky’s lineup. Oklahoma State is a really good baseball team. They are really good offensively. They got tremendous balance of power and speed. Their bullpen is phenomenal at Oklahoma State. That is the best offensive lineup we faced. That is a really good offense that Kentucky runs out there. You look at those numbers and see seven guys hitting over .300, you have to pitch really good to get through that, and they have a good combination of speed and power.
On the mentality of Kansas being overlooked:
“I think the good thing about our guys is we don’t have any superstars on the team, and we have had some in the past. We have five guys playing in the big leagues right. We have had some really good players come through the University of Kansas while I have been here. I have had a lot better teams than this one. We have had some teams as good as that Kentucky team is offensively. We have to compete and grind and execute in order to be good. When you have a team that doesn’t have any superstars, you come out and try to do all the little things it takes to win. We threw out the guy at the dish on a really good play. We turn a double play. We executed our in-between bunt with runners at first and third to get the RBI. We put the sacrifice bunt down and go the two-out RBI. We got two-out hits. We did all the little things we have to do to win because we can’t turn one pitch around and hit a three-run double or a three-run homer. For us, that is about as good as we could play and execute today.
On Tucker Tharp’s performance at the plate:
“You look at that line score; he had three hits and three RBIs today. He was a big-time player. You can make the statement at the end of the game, ‘he was the best player on the field today.’ Any time you upset somebody who is in the top-25, somebody has to have a special day and for us today, it was Tucker Tharp.”
On the play of Tommy Mirabelli:
“You know guys, he opened the season in the starting lineup for us and then about game 20 he was batting about .140. The quality of his at bats weren’t good and he was chasing balls out of the zone. Then we went to Colby Wright and for us it worked out really good. Colby hit over .300 and made Second-Team All-Big 12 and has been one of our best players. I have been trying to get him (Mirabelli) back in the lineup and started playing him about two weeks ago. He has a really good skill set. His dad is the vice president of the Cleveland Indians and has grown up in a baseball family. He has had as bad a year as anyone I have ever seen and yet he has continued to work hard. He has gotten better in the last month and has gotten opportunities to play and he has contributed. He can really run and handle the bat. He has a quick bat for a tiny guy and he works counts. He is going to be a really good baseball player and I was thrilled for him. He could have easily have shut it down. When you lose your starting job and then barely play for two months, you can do one of two things. You can keep working, keep grinding and find a way to get better or you can go in the opposite direction. To his credit, he kept fighting through it.”
On Dakota Smith’s exit of the game:
“He caught his cleat I guess when he slid at home plate and they think he has a torn ligament in his knee so he is getting an MRI in the morning. He is our best fastball hitter too. I mean when he worked that count 2-0 he was on time with that ball that he lasered up the gap. I thought we were done when he left. If I put anybody on the field against somebody throwing 93 or 94, I want him at the plate.”
Tucker Tharp, Sr., CF, Boulder, Colo.
On Kansas being overlooked by Kentucky:
“At the beginning of the year we were picked to finish last in the Big 12, so we’ve always played with a chip on our shoulder this year and tried to stay within ourselves and play our baseball. We didn’t really think about it that much. We knew it would be a cool matchup and we wanted to get in the way and we tried to do so.”
On the difficulty of the delays affecting their performance at the plate:
“It is difficult when you stop and go, stop and go. You have to warm your body back up after every time you stop, but once it’s game time you want to check it in and battle and want to be prepared as much as you can, even after sitting in the locker room for three hours today. It’s a long day and I thought the guys did a great job getting ourselves ready to go and competing at the plate.”
On Tommy Mirabelli’s performance in the nine-hole:
“It was different to see, but it was cool for Tommy (Mirabelli) to step up on a big stage today. We haven’t been here in a while as a team. Tommy stepped up and it was great to see the firepower in the bottom of the lineup. Then when we got to the middle of the lineup we had some chances late with two outs and two strikes to expand the game. It was great on Tommy’s part.”
Drew Morovick, Jr., RHP, Hemet, Calif.
On if he knew he was going to be the guy or not heading into the second rain delay:
“He (Kansas pitching coach Ryan Graves) sent me down and he told me he was going to give me a clean inning. I kind of knew when we went into a rain delay he might send Jordan (Piche’) back out. Then once it was going to be over 30 minutes, he came to me and told me the game was in my hands now and to go out there and put up zeroes. We preach that as a pitching staff. When you come in with the game on the line you have to put up zeroes to put your team in a position to win. That’s all he told me to do and that’s all I wanted to do.”
On getting out of the jam after a leadoff single with A.J. Reed on deck:
“Knowing he is on deck – we only had a two run lead – and if he came up in a big-time situation he could put a couple RBIs on the board, so I just went out and attacked. I wasn’t going to throw anything he had a chance of elevating, I trusted Gravey (Kansas pitching coach Ryan Graves) and his pitch calling, I knew I could just go out there and attack the guy.”
On the huge double play throwing out Kentucky runner at the plate:
“I wasn’t expecting him to go, I was expecting a bluff. When he took off I started heading back to the mound and I saw he wasn’t breaking so I stood there and I had a perfect view of it. It was a beautiful throw by (Michael) Suiter, and a great block of the plate by Kai (Ka’iana Eldredge). That sprung us in the game and that was a huge momentum swing right there.”
Justin Protacio, Jr., SS, Pearly City, Hawaii
On what Kansas did to stay loose during the rain delays:
“We were just listening to some music and telling stories with each other. Just talking about the season and how close we are as a team. There is great senior leadership on our team. They stepped up and said cut the games after each delay when it was time to get back on the field and we all got serious again.”