Hot Bats and Strong Arms Prevail in Cooler Temperatures
Notes Link Fall Ball Stats (.pdf)
LAWRENCE, Kan. – October baseball in the state of Kansas holds a new meaning with the emergence of the Kansas City Royals as a contender for the World Series title, but for 35 Jayhawks in Lawrence, it means the start of a new season and a chance to hone their skills for the upcoming 56-game slate in the spring.
NCAA rules dictate that baseball teams are allowed 45 days in the fall to hold 27 practices and the Kansas baseball team wasted no time taking advantage of the opportunity to improve its skills and build for the 2016 campaign.
“We had to adjust our practice schedule to more individually based group sessions,” head coach Ritch Price said. “It has allowed our players’ individual development to increase at a more rapid pace than in years past. This is probably the deepest team we have had since I have been here.”
After a 2015 season plagued with injury and inexperience, Price continues to look to the development of his younger players to be the building blocks of his program. Two such players, sophomores Matt McLaughlin and Owen Taylor, picked up right where they left off a season ago and have hit the ground running midway through the fall session.
Taylor belted one of two home runs on the squad and is second on the team with a .656 slugging percentage. In 32 at bats, he has connected 13 times for a triple, three doubles and eight singles to go along with his four-bagger, and has driven in a team-high eight RBIs.
“Owen Taylor has been a man all fall,” Price said. “He hit a ball over the scoreboard last Friday. He is a guy that can hit in the middle of the lineup and provide double-digit home runs and 50-plus RBIs – that will take us to another level.”
McLaughlin holds a .367 average in 30 at bats and is second on the team with seven RBIs after hitting three doubles and eight singles. In addition, the speedy shortstop is a perfect 4-for-4 in stolen bases and has struck out just three times.
“Matt McLaughlin has improved more than anyone I have had since he has walked onto this campus,” Price said. “He has the skillset to be one of the best players and shortstops I have had the privilege to coach.”
The young guns may be the foundation of the program, but their existence wouldn’t be possible without the steady workhorses in junior catcher Michael Tinsley and junior first baseman Marcus Wheeler. An All-Big 12 Second Team honoree a year ago, Tinsley solidifies his spot in the middle of the lineup with a .357 average, including a team-high eight runs scored.
Wheeler blasted the team’s only other home run this fall en route to driving in seven RBIs on 11 hits that includes six doubles – two more than anyone else on the squad. Wheeler’s .769 slugging percentage and .423 average (11-for-26) rank first on the team while his 11 hits ranks second, only to Taylor.
On the mound, the Jayhawks prove to be young and rely on the development of a young pitching staff with the guidance of two veterans, 2015 Big 12 Newcomer of the Year Ben Krauth and All-Big 12 Honorable Mention Stephen Villines, in 2016.
Krauth emerged as KU’s Friday night starter a season ago and has taken that role to new heights in the fall. In seven and one-third innings pitched, Krauth owns a team-best nine-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio and has held the 34 batters he has faced to a .258 average.
“If we are going to be successful you have to be able to pitch in a Power Five conference,” Price said. “When you return the 2015 Big 12 Newcomer of the Year in Ben Krauth on Friday night, it gives you a great starting point. He is better than he was a year ago and he has great makeup.”
Price and his staff used Villines in differing roles out of the bullpen a year ago, mainly because of his consistency on the bump. This fall, the sidearm-slinger has been able to hone his skills and return to his role as the team’s closer. Through six innings of work, Villines hasn’t given up a run or a walk, and has struck out six of the 21 batters he has faced.
“The best thing that has happened for us is that associate head coach Ryan Graves has more bullets to shoot at people than he did a year ago,” Price said. “Last year we would bring Villines in during the seventh or eighth inning and count on him to pitch multiple innings on multiple days over the weekend. The thing we are really excited for and has been evident in the fall is that we have three or four guys that are showing the ability to set up and hand Villines the ball where he only pitches one inning and gives us the chance to be successful.”
The midway point of fall baseball gives the Jayhawks the opportunity to pay homage to former players with the fourth annual Floyd Temple Alumni Game slated for Homecoming, Saturday, Oct. 31, at Hoglund Ballpark. More information about the event will be made available at KUAthletics.com at a later date.
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