Manhattan The scoreboard showed Kansas University with a one-run lead going into the bottom of the ninth at Kansas State's Tointon Stadium on a sunny Sunday afternoon. To know anything about the state of KU's pitching staff at that point was to know the Jayhawks' surviving the inning qualified as an extreme long shot.
Predictably, Kansas State prevailed, 11-10, and a little while later Kansas learned its season had ended because Oklahoma had defeated Oklahoma State. KU joined Texas Tech as the only Big 12 baseball teams left out of the eight-team conference tournament in Oklahoma City.
In truth, the season ended much earlier for Kansas. It ended when Andy Marks and then fellow left-hander Wally Marciel underwent arm surgeries. Not that Marks and Marciel call to mind Warren Spahn and Sandy Koufax, but they were dominoes at the front of the pitching staff. When they went down, the whole staff wobbled.
Heading into the season, fifth-year KU coach Ritch Price was fired up at the prospect of having Andres Esquibel set up Paul Smyth for the second year in a row. Didn't happen. Esquibel had to move to the rotation. The late innings that had looked so promising looked like this as the season drew to a close: Right-hander Brett Bollman and lefty Sam Freeman, a pair of pitchers who had allowed 122 base-runners in 591â3 innings coming into the day, handled the eighth and ninth innings.
Why wasn't Smyth in there to protect the lead? Because Price is no fool. Instead of using Smyth to get three or six outs, he used him for 12, bringing him in to start the third. Smyth told Price he still had more in him. Why didn't Price listen to him? Because the coach has a conscience. Smyth had pitched two innings Saturday, and as badly as Price wanted his team to make it to Oklahoma City, he didn't want to do it by sending another pitcher in for surgery.
Price is a good man and a good baseball man. He brought with him from California years of success and knowledge, valuable recruiting contacts and three ball-playing sons, including senior Ryne, who led the team with 59 RBIs, and slick-fielding second baseman and No. 2 hitter Robby, a sophomore who reached base safely three times in the season finale. The coach could not figure out a way to bring the weather with him. It remains a tall hurdle, especially in the area of assembling a pitching staff packed with power arms.
It was difficult to watch Kansas end its season without wondering what a bona fide Friday night fire-baller could have done for the program.
"Like Aaron Crow?" Price said of the Missouri ace from Topeka. "Two straight regional appearances and maybe a super (-regional)? We're working at it. That's the hardest thing about turning around a cold-weather program is to attract top-notch pitching. Nobody wants to pitch in the cold weather. I think early you have to identify a guy like (Crow), who blossoms into one of the most special guys in America. ... We think the four freshmen we've signed are the top four arms I've signed in my five years at Kansas. A lot of that has to do with facility improvements. We have credibility now. We've made really good progress from a recruiting standpoint."
He believes it. Most others will need to see it first.