A Season to Remember
LAWRENCE, Kan. – As the 2015 Kansas baseball team heads into its first weekend of fall practice highlighted by the Third-Annual Floyd Temple Alumni Game on Staurday, September 27, members of last year’s squad sat down and reflected on the accomplishments they had a year ago.
It takes many great moments to make a season special, especially for a program that prides itself on making a four-year commitment to its recruits, developing them into good ball players and even better human beings. Looking back at the 2014 Kansas baseball campaign, one can say the great moments were endless. From the 12-1 start to the nine-straight conference wins to close out the regular season, the Jayhawks took every opportunity they could to prove they could play with some of the best teams in the nation.
The squad took early criticism by the league’s coaches, having been voted to finish last in the conference, and used it as fuel to propel them to the program’s highest finish in the history of the Big 12 at third. If that wasn’t enough, the team earned its fifth NCAA Tournament berth and third in the 12-year tenure of head coach Ritch Price.
Kansas set the tone for the season early, rattling off nine-straight wins en route to finishing 12-1 in the first 13 contests of the season, capped off by a Friday night win in 13 innings at Stanford (March 7), 4-2. The 12-1 record to begin the season was the best start in school history, no small feat for a program that threw its first pitch in 1880.
However, that 12th win didn’t come easy, as the Jayhawks and Cardinal battled late into the night in the 13-inning affair, behind seven scoreless innings from junior lefty Wes Benjamin.
“I think it showed us that we could compete with anybody,” Benjamin said. “Winning that game was a big momentum and confidence boost for us, knowing that we can compete with the best teams in the nation.”
The following weekend, the Jayhawks faced another tough test on the road, at then-No. 10 Texas (March 14). Again, it was Benjamin who set the tone on Friday night leading KU to the 3-2 win in eight and two-thirds innings pitched.
“I think that win finally gave us the recognition we deserved from the other teams in the league,” Benjamin said. “It really set the table for the rest of the conference season.”
Wasting no time, senior hurler Frank Duncan took the mound on Sunday (March 16) and paced Kansas with seven scoreless innings to clinch the series win on the road at UT, a first for the Jayhawks since 1996.
After the five-game road swing that ended with two losses at New Mexico (March 18-19), KU returned home to host its first weekend opponent at Hoglund Ballpark, Dartmouth (March 21-23). The Jayhawks won convincingly Friday and Saturday, 13-5 and 11-7, before dropping a one-run contest Sunday, 3-2.
The lack of offense in the series finale against the Big Green didn’t last long, as Kansas trekked to Omaha, Nebraska, and pounded Creighton, 11-0, during midweek action (March 26). The 16 hits the Jayhawks recorded that cold Wednesday night tied the stadium record for the most hits in a game by any team in TD Ameritrade Park history, including the College World Series.
“What a special night for our team,” Price said. “The wind is howling and blowing in, it’s really cold and we put on that kind of offensive performance. It was a great Wednesday night victory.”
Riding the momentum of a convincing win against the Jays, Kansas returned home to open up its Big 12 home slate against Oklahoma. Following two one-run losses, the Jayhawks headed into Sunday (March 30) needing a win to avoid the sweep. It would take a walk-off double from the bat of junior right fielder Dakota Smith in the bottom of the ninth to lift KU to victory over the Sooners, 4-3.
“What a huge at bat for the entire season,” Price said. “One of the things you preach to your club is the importance of not getting swept. Dakota clutched up with one of the greatest at bats of the year and helped save the season.”
The season looked pretty grim following the series with OU, as Benjamin exited his start early Friday night and underwent Tommy John surgery. The loss of a Friday-night starter could destroy a season, but the Jayhawks didn’t let that deter them from achieving their goals.
But before solidifying their weekend rotation, the Jayhawks had a tough midweek matchup against in-state rival Wichita State (April 1). The hero of the night wasn’t in the starting lineup, but found himself in a key spot late in the game. Sophomore first baseman Ryan Pidhaichuk entered the game in the eighth inning and made one of the top defensive plays of the season to double off the runner at first and save two runs from scoring. His line-drive snag secured the game as KU went on to win, 4-2.
“He saved the ballgame,” Price said. “That was one of the finest defensive plays of the year. WSU’s Casey Gillespie railed that ball down the line and [Pidhaichuk] makes a diving catch and turns it into a double play and the Jayhawks win.”
That defensive spark may have been just what Kansas needed, as the Jayhawks entered the weekend without their ace to continue rivalry week on the road at Kansas State.
Price handed the ball over to senior captain and 2013 Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, Jordan Piche’, on Friday night to help fill the void left by Benjamin.
“I wanted to put the ball in the hands of one of our experienced pitchers,” Price said. “He was a starter in junior college and pitched so well a year ago for us, he was the obvious choice.”
Piche’s first outing led to Kansas getting blanked 10-0 by the Wildcats. KU found a way to win Saturday (April 5), 6-3, and entered Sunday needing a clutch performance from someone to salvage the series.
That someone was Duncan. The hurler tossed a complete game, allowing one run off seven hits to pace the Jayhawks to a 2-1 victory and series win.
“That is going to be one of the most memorable starts in my life, just because of the significance of the game,” Duncan said. “It was our first series without Wes [Benjamin] and we absolutely got dominated on Friday night. We were able to win and squeeze one out on Saturday and I was tasked to pitch the rubber match of the Sunflower Showdown. It will be something I always remember.”
Price agreed that was a big outing for Duncan to win the series on the road at K-State.
“For Frank to walk out there on Sunday and go a complete game to win the series on the road and overcome the first weekend with the loss of your No. 1 starter – that victory set the tone that we were not going to quit,” Price added. “Look at what happened to the two clubs. We surged up in the conference standings and they finished last. It was a huge series on the road early in the year.”
The weekend matchups didn’t get any easier as Kansas played host to TCU the following series (April 11-12). Stacked up against three Team USA pitchers, the Jayhawks fell in the opening bout, 5-2, before incoming weather forced a Saturday doubleheader. Junior right fielder Connor McKay highlighted the day with a three home run performance, pacing KU to a victory in the night cap, 5-1, to avoid another sweep.
“One of the most amazing performances I have seen at KU,” Price commented about McKay’s day at the plate. “All three guys are Team USA pitchers. The home run he hit Saturday to help us avoid getting swept was huge. It gave us an opportunity the next weekend to go on the road and do something special.”
However, the special didn’t come right away. It took a four-game skid, including getting swept at then-No. 13 Oklahoma State, to kick Kansas into gear and set the table for an unprecedented run into the postseason.
The run started Friday night (April 25) when Piche’ took the mound at Baylor, completely unaware of the spark he was on the verge of starting. The righty entered the contest with a 0-3 record as a starter and a 9.00 ERA, giving up 17 runs off 28 hits in 17 innings pitched. Piche’ gave up a leadoff single to start the game before holding the Bears hitless through the next 27 outs, a 106-pitch effort. Senior catcher Ka’iana Eldredge came through clutch to drive in the lone run of the game in the top half of the ninth to give Kansas the win, 1-0. That was the fewest hits allowed by a KU starter since Shaeffer Hall threw a no-hitter against Air Force, Feb. 20, 2009.
“That was the turning point for me as a starter,” Piche’ said. “Throwing that one-hit shutout proved to myself that I could be a starter at this level. As a team, it solidified that we had three weekend starters. Losing Wes [Benjamin] was hard on the team – it’s hard to see a teammate go down like that. After that start, it really clicked for the team as a whole and showed that we could compete Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”
“That was one of the best games pitched at KU in my tenure,” Price added. “He was in complete command the entire ballgame. It was an absolutely dominating performance.”
That Friday win set the table for a weekend sweep of the Bears, marking just six wins for the Jayhawks in Waco, Texas, in the last 30 tries. But the sweeter moments came when Price picked up his 1,000th-career win as a head coach Saturday, (April 26) and his 600th win at the Division I level Sunday (April 27).
The wave of momentum continued with a commanding 10-3 win against the Shockers (April 29) in Wichita, before hosting a red-hot Texas Tech team the following weekend.
The Red Raiders entered the Hog with a No. 19 national ranking, the second-best rated offense in the Big 12 and riding a four-game winning streak that included a convincing sweep of OU to sit in third place in the league standings.
Kansas, however, had also won four-straight and outscored its opponents, 29-10. And on Friday night, the Jayhawks proved they belonged in the top mix of the conference with an 11-3 pounding of Texas Tech, capped off by a monster shot three-quarters up the trees in left field by junior Michael Suiter.
“That is a team that advanced to the College World Series and set a school record for wins this season,” Price said. “They came into our place with a top-25 national ranking and a third-place standing in the league. The Friday-night win set the tone for us to go out there and get after them all weekend. It ended up being a huge series sweep for the Kansas Jayhawks.”
Sweep indeed. KU took Saturday’s contest, 6-4, before riding Duncan’s complete game Sunday to a 4-1 victory, extending the team’s win streak to seven games.
The bats couldn’t stay hot forever, as Kansas fell to Missouri State (May 7) in its final midweek game of the season, 5-3. A devastating loss entering the final weekend of conference play, the Jayhawks needed to dig deep and find a way to win the series against West Virginia (May 9-11) to keep building a strong postseason resume.
It wasn’t going to be easy. In fact, it took a few big-time performances by KU players to propel the Jayhawks past WVU. The first came Friday night in the bottom of the eighth inning, Kansas trailing 3-2. McKay blasted an RBI double to right center knot the game at 3-3. Then faced with a 0-1 count, senior centerfield Tucker Tharp blasted a home run to left center field to put KU on top, 5-3, and seal the Friday night victory.
“Big time. Absolute big time,” Price recalled of Tharp’s home run. “It’s a pitcher’s battle and we are trying to fight our way into third place in the league. Both teams are fighting for NCAA Tournament berths and it was one of the greatest at bats in my time at Kansas. Absolute big time, clutch home run.”
The Jayhawks won Saturday, 5-2, before seniors Duncan, Eldredge and Tharp paced the squad to a Sunday sweep on Senior Day. It was destined to be a special day, especially after the second inning when Duncan made an unbelievable play off the mound to save a run from scoring. A diving glove flip off a bunt to Eldredge at the dish may have been the play of the year, as the duo got the out and kept WVU from tacking on a run.
“That was one of the most athletic plays I have made,” Duncan said. “I didn’t want them to score any runs that day. I could have taken the easy out at first, but my bullheadedness said ‘no, get the guy at the plate.'”
With great defense comes great offense, and Eldredge and Tharp put on a show. The duo combined for six two-out RBIs leading KU to victory, 9-8. That victory capped off a run of nine-straight conference wins, sweeping three-straight league series, a first for Kansas in the history of the Big 12.
“It was amazing to be a part of,” Price said about the win streak. “You talk about playing complete baseball and finding ways to win no matter what it takes. If you can have two special weekends where you sweep two opponents, you will finish in the top four in our league and make the NCAA Tournament as a general rule. To win nine-straight is an amazing feat.”
The season wasn’t over quite yet, as the Jayhawks traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where they split a two-game set with the Wolverines, before heading to the conference tournament.
With NCAA implications on the line, No. 3-seeded Kansas opened up the Phillips 66 Big 12 Baseball Championship against No. 6-seeded West Virginia. Piche’ started on the bump and struck out a career-high 11 batters through six and one-third innings of work. KU took an 8-2 lead into the seventh where the Mountaineers put up an eight-spot, proving to be too much for the Jayhawks as they fell, 10-9.
In an elimination bout with seventh-seeded Baylor, Kansas fell behind early, 4-1, through three innings but battled back before coming up short, 4-3. That loss sent the Jayhawks home early and left their NCAA Tournament fate in the hands of the selection committee.
“In the 12 years I have been in the Big 12, one of the things I respect the most is how great our league truly is,” Price said following elimination from the conference tournament. “No team in our league has ever finished third and not made the tournament. So, I believe we are in good shape, but we just have to wait and see what happens.”
It was a long, excruciating wait. The Jayhawks returned home to Lawrence Thursday, May 22, and the selection show didn’t take place until Monday, May 26. Nevertheless, it was business as usual. Kansas kept to the same practice routine, anticipating a berth in the tournament.
On pins and needles, the squad and support staff met inside the McCarthy Family Clubhouse that Memorial Day to see what fate had in store. Everyone congregated in the locker room, watching and waiting for the name ‘Kansas.’
“Next up is the Louisville Regional,” the TV announcer said. “No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 4 Kent State . . . and then we have No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 3 Kansas.”
The place erupted. The players celebrated with a mob in the center of the locker room and danced like they would following a victory at the Hog. A weight was lifted and the Jayhawks were headed to the fifth NCAA Tournament in school history and third in the Price era.
“It proved to our freshmen that anything is possible,” Piche’ said on qualifying for the NCAA postseason. “With Wes [Benjamin] going down, that was a big hurt for our team. It showed that hard work can take you a long way and I think it was an eye-opening experience for the younger guys.”
“This is why you coach,” the veteran Skipper said. “You coach for the relationships with your players and the kind of opportunities a few young men get to experience in life and enjoy. This might be as close of a team that I have coached in my career. The team chemistry is off the charts. You can see how much those guys care for one another. I think each one of those guys here wanted it for their teammate, and that is the greatest feeling you can have as a head coach.”
What could have doubled as a good basketball Final Four in the Louisville Regional, KU now had a mountain to climb if it was going to win the regional and advance to the next round. The first opponent, Kentucky, and National Player of the Year, A.J. Reed, were first.
The two squads had never faced off in the history of the two programs, and no one could have predicted what both teams would face that Friday evening in Louisville. Yet, three hours and 22 minutes of weather delays didn’t faze the Jayhawks as Kansas beat Kentucky at its own game, 10-6, using its big-time offense to silence the Wildcats (May 30).
“That was one of the most unusual games I’ve ever been involved in,” 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 with our short game.”
From start to finish, the game lasted six hours and 36 minutes, including three hours and 22 minutes of weather delays on top of a three-hour and 14-minute contest. It was then a quick turn around for the Jayhawks to face Louisville in the winner’s bracket finale.
It’s hard to put up a crooked number in the error column and win a ballgame, and that is what Kansas faced that Saturday night against Louisville. KU recorded three errors en route to picking up the team’s first loss in this year’s NCAA regional play, 6-3 (May 31).
The potent bats that showed up against the Wildcats in the first game, seemed almost dormant against the Cardinals, with three missed opportunities with bases loaded after getting the leadoff man aboard to start each frame.
“I didn’t think our offensive approach was very good,” Price said. “In the first five innings, he (Louisville starting pitcher Anthony Kidston) only threw three off-speed pitches for strikes. We chased a lot of balls in the dirt with runners in scoring position.”
That loss dropped the Jayhawks into an elimination matchup with Kentucky (June 1). The second time around proved to help the chances of the Wildcats, as they came out on top, 8-6.
Down 8-0, Kansas rallied for five runs in the sixth inning and added another run in the eighth, thanks to a solo shot by Eldredge in the final at bat of his collegiate career. However, UK held on for the victory to end the chances for KU’s redemption in a championship game versus the Cardinals.
The 2014 season may have ended in Louisville, but the legacy of what the senior class did and the adversity that they overcame will live on with future Kansas teams.
“It was a nice step forward for our seniors,” Price said, reflecting on the season. “The run we made at the end of the year was really exciting to be a part of. I think one of the great things was our freshmen saw how important each and every day of the season is, how to grind, how to compete and how to overachieve and fight through adversity. The clubs that handle it the best are the ones standing at the end of the year. I compliment our five seniors, they did a phenomenal job as leaders.”
The season may have not ended as hoped for, but it was definitely full of many memorable moments that will stick with those close to the game, and the Kansas baseball program for years to come.
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