In case anyone on hand for the Kansas University baseball team’s Saturday night matchup with rival Kansas State needed concrete evidence about the level of dominance turned in by Jayhawks starter T.J. Walz, he or she needed only to take a quick glance toward the right-field bullpen.
There, taped crooked and cockeyed to the side of a wall, was a long line of makeshift K’s. Twelve of them stood following Saturday’s game, placed there by the team’s grounds crew with what appeared to be electrical tape, a low-budget homage to the sophomore right-hander’s dozen strikeouts in the Jayhawks’ 9-3 blowout of Kansas State.
In his final start of the regular season, Walz turned in one of his strongest outings of the spring (some called it the strongest), giving up five hits and just one run in six innings while helping the Jayhawks snap an ugly eight-game losing streak to the Wildcats. His 12 strikeouts were the most from a Kansas pitcher since 2005, and on a night when the team was in high need of a good outing — a series victory over K-State likely would guarantee KU a spot in the NCAA Tournament — Walz certainly did his part in evening the series at one game apiece.
“I mean, the guy had, what, (12) strikeouts?” asked KU catcher Buck Afenir afterward. “That’s about as good as it gets.”
Strikeouts are not necessarily a new concept for Walz, from Omaha, Neb. Entering the game, he was the team leader with 68. On three occasions this season, he has fanned 10 or more batters, and in an 8-2 KU victory over Nebraska last month, he managed to record four strikeouts in a single inning (one batter reached base after a third strike got past the catcher).
But Saturday was different. Kansas State’s batters — at least one of whom curiously took warm-up swings with a sledge hammer from the on-deck circle — couldn’t seem to figure him out. Through three innings, Walz had notched seven strikeouts. Through four, he had nine. And despite finding himself in a sticky situation in both the fifth and sixth innings, he managed to work his way out of them on both occasions without giving up a run.
“I was just trying to let them put the ball into play,” said Walz, who earned his team-high eighth victory this season. “(But) the strikeouts work, too.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Walz’s performance Saturday night, however, is the fact that he did it all in the middle a mental block that KU coach Ritch Price compared after the game to the yips.
On more than a dozen occasions Saturday, Walz threw to first in an attempted pickoff play, including multiple times when there appeared to be no threat of a steal. According to Price, Walz has developed a type of nervous tic that began after the pitcher struggled to come fully set in his windup from the stretch, resulting in semi-regular balks. Recently, having to force himself to come to a complete stop before making his pitches, he has begun making excessive throws to first base.
“You saw him picking over, picking over,” said Price, who said Walz will meet with KU sports psychologist Megan Brent next week in an effort to correct the problem. “(Pitching coach Ryan) Graves isn’t calling those. He’s fighting through those demons a little bit right now, but he’ll get it fixed.”
In addition to Walz’s success, meanwhile, the Hoglund Ballpark-record crowd of 2,438 was also treated to a stout offensive performance Saturday evening.
The Jayhawks (36-19, 14-12 in the Big 12) scored at least one run in each of the first four innings, putting three on the board in the bottom of the second to jump to a quick lead. In the fourth, Afenir hit his eighth home run of the season, a two-run shot to right field, and two innings later, a Robby Price home run and Casey Lytle RBI single pushed Kansas’ advantage to 9-1.
Afenir, who was 4-for-5 with two RBIs and a pair of runs scored, set a career-high for hits, while designated hitter Zac Elgie finished 2-for-4 with two RBIs.
Entering tonight’s series finale against the Wildcats (39-14-1, 14-10-1), scheduled for 6 p.m. at Hoglund Ballpark, Kansas will attempt to take another step forward in the race for a top-four seed in next week’s Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City — a race that, with just one day remaining in the regular season, has yet to be determined.
“Their kid pitched great on Friday, and our kid pitched great tonight,” Ritch Price said. “And now we’re going to play on Sunday and see who’s got the best players.”