Archive for Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Kansas coach’s fall quest: find a closer

September 28, 2004

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Mark Mangino isn't the only Kansas University coach who knows blown leads.

KU baseball coach Ritch Price saw enough leads evaporate last spring to last a lifetime. The Jayhawks led the Big 12 Conference in hitting (.316), but were next-to-last in earned-run average (5.21) and tied for last in saves (seven).

Now, with 24 days of fall workouts scheduled to begin Friday, Price needs to identify a dependable closer as much as Mangino, KU's football coach, needs find a reliable place-kicker.

Price thought he had a stopper last spring. Then Brandon Johnson, the hard-throwing former Free State standout, suffered an elbow injury and had to undergo Tommy John surgery. Now Price is keeping his fingers crossed about Johnson, who won seven games and saved seven as a junior in 2003.

"He's making great progress," Price said of the 5-foot-11, 200-pound right-hander. "We're hoping to have him back."

Price also was hoping another ailing hurler would be available next spring. Left-hander John Fumagalli, a juco transfer who had been projected as an integral part of the Jayhawks' starting rotation, didn't pitch an inning in the spring after suffering a rotator cuff injury.

Fumagalli has had two surgeries since, and the news is bad.

"We learned last week his career has ended," Price said. "That was a setback."

Price had Fumagalli tentatively ticketed to replace Ryan Knippschild in the rotation. Knippschild, also a left-hander, was Price's most dependable starter as a senior in the spring.

Now Price likely will look to Kodiak Quick, a junior right-hander from Belton, Mo., who transferred from Stanford. Quick reportedly has looked good during individual workouts.

Knippschild, a high-round draft choice of the Cleveland Indians, started 13 games for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers during the summer, posting a 4-3 won-lost record and a 3.93 earned-run average. He currently is enrolled and working with Price as a student helper.

Two other members of the 2004 KU baseball team also spent the summer in short-season Class-A ball.

Third baseman Travis Metcalf, selected in the 11th round of the June draft by the Texas Rangers, finished second in the Northwest League in both home runs (15) and RBIs (62) with the Spokane Indians. Metcalf, who established KU single-season and career home-run records last spring, now is playing in the Arizona Instructional League.

"I'm really excited for Travis," Price said. "I think he has a good chance to make it to the top."

Ryan Baty's chances are on hold, however. Baty played in only 23 games for the Hudson Valley Renegades, a Tampa Bay Devil Rays farm team. Baty, who hit .355 with 24 doubles and 11 home runs last spring, suffered a concussion after being beaned in a mid-June practice game in Florida.

Then, while playing for the Rays' farm club in Fishkill, N.Y., Baty was kneed in the head while diving back to first base, suffered a relapse and was shut down for the remainder of the season. Price said Baty was back home in Wichita and planned to give pro ball another shot next spring before enrolling in KU's School of Law in the fall.

Baty hit .276 with a pair of doubles and a pair of homers in his abbreviated pro debut.

Incidentally, shortstop John Nelson, another former Jayhawk in the minor leagues, hit over .300 this summer for the Tennessee Smokies, the St. Louis Cardinals' Class AA farm, and will be playing in the Arizona Fall League for the Mesa Saguaros.

Improving the pitching is Price's top priority during fall workouts, but finding replacements for Metcalf and Baty at the corner infield positions is clearly Job Two.

Perhaps the leading candidate for the third base job is Price's son Ryne, the former Free State High standout who hit 27 home runs this summer for the San Luis Obispo Firestone Rangers, an Amateur Baseball Federation team in California.

If Ryne does play third, he'll be stationed next to older brother Ritchie, who has been the Jayhawks' starting shortstop for the last two seasons. First base also is up for grabs. One possibility is moving catcher Sean Richardson to first base. Richardson hit .332 with 12 home runs and a team-high 69 RBIs in the spring while earning second-team All-Big 12 honors.

While Price evaluates his players during the next month, behind-the-scenes paperwork on the latest upgrade at Hoglund Ballpark will continue. Construction on a $360,000 indoor workout facility in the right-field corner is scheduled to begin in early November.

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