Price: Jayhawks ‘solid’

Coach counting on return of six regulars

Ritchie Price returns for his senior year at shortstop. He should be familiar with his infield-mates, since the rest of the infield returns intact.

The cupboard has never been so full of bats and gloves for Kansas University baseball coach Ritch Price.

“We’re the most solid we’ve been in three years I’ve been here with returning players,” Price said.

Pitching may be a different story, as the Jayhawks build off last year’s 36-28 record and the third most wins in school history.

Although Price should have six returning regulars – depending on whether senior outfielder Gus Milner returns or signs with the Cleveland Indians after being taken in the 47th round of the June draft – but the KU coach will lose two solid starting pitchers.

“Right now, we’re pretty comfortable where we stand,” senior outfielder Matt Baty said. “We lost some senior leadership, but I think we can fill that. We’re getting everybody back from the infield and outfield. We got to find some pitching, but I think we have some guys we can develop.”

The infield should remain intact with senior Jared Schweitzer at first base, sophomore Ryne Price at second, senior Ritchie Price at shortstop and sophomore Erik Morrison at third. Senior Baty returns in center field and Milner in right.

Left fielder A.J. Van Slyke, who led Kansas with 72 hits, 57 RBIs and 12 home runs, passed on his senior year to sign with the Cardinals, who took the St. Louis native in the 23rd round of the June Draft.

Price also lost senior catcher Sean Richardson, who was drafted in the 19th round of the draft by Minnesota, and senior designated hitter Travis Dunlap.

Buck Afenir and Dylan Parzyk, newcomers from California, are the leading candidates to take over behind the plate. At DH, Price probably will go with the combination of sophomore Brock Simpson and red-shirt sophomore John Allman. The one who isn’t in the DH slot will play left field.

The obvious hole in the starting pitching rotation is the space left behind by Mike Zagurski, who was picked by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 12th round of the draft after ending his senior season with an 8-5 record, a 4.95 earned-run average and a team-high 112 strikeouts.

The loss of Zagurski and Clint Schambach, an early season starter, should be lightened by the arrival of a batch of freshman pitchers who are expected to contribute.

“They’re really talented,” Price said. “We just have to a good job of coaching them and developing them and giving them a chance to emerge.”

Among mound newcomers are Nick Czyz, a Blue Valley West product and brother of senior pitcher Don, who played his summer ball as a member of the U.S. Junior National team. St. Louis southpaw Andy Marks also should be a candidate to start.

Also in the freshman class will be Preston Land, a pitcher-first baseman who recently broke the Missouri home run record last season while playing at Blue Springs. He’s a brother of junior pitcher Sean Land, who was a regular in the starting rotation last season.

“I think one of great things about is we’ve continued to improve our program, improved our facilities and I think they want to follow in their brother’s footsteps,” Ritch Price said of the growing familial ties in his clubhouse.

Baty, who will be a senior captain, predicts the Jayhawks will finish in the top four of the Big 12 after finishing 11-15 in the conference in 2005.

“We went on a streak (at the end of the season) when we were playing some of the best ball in the conference,” Baty said.

Facilities improvements such as a new scoreboard and a new indoor workout building down the right-field line at Hoglund Ballpark are part of a bright overall picture.

“I think the biggest thing we’ve done is raise the bar,” Price said. “That’s really helped our team and now the next thing is to make the NCAA tournament. We’re right on the verge. We just need to break through now.”