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Archive for Friday, February 18, 2011

Eager underdogs: After down year, Jayhawk baseball relishes diminished expectations

KU pitcher T.J. Walz delivers during the game against Texas A&M on Thursday, April 1, 2010, at Hoglund Ballpark.

KU pitcher T.J. Walz delivers during the game against Texas A&M on Thursday, April 1, 2010, at Hoglund Ballpark.

February 18, 2011

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Last spring, the expectations for Kansas University’s baseball team were perhaps the loftiest in the program’s history.

With Player of the Year candidate Tony Thompson headlining a powerful offense and a strong crop of pitchers, the Jayhawks were picked to finish second in the Big 12, and mentions of reaching the College World Series weren’t unheard of.

But Thompson missed the first third of the season because of a broken kneecap, dominant closer Brett Bochy blew out his elbow early in Big 12 play, and KU’s aspirations of a postseason run slowly fizzled away.

The Jayhawks finished 31-27-1 overall, 11-15-1 in the Big 12, often let would-be wins slip away and ended the year on a six-game losing streak.

Ever the optimist, coach Ritch Price had a little fun at his own expense on media day on Tuesday at the McCarthy Family Clubhouse.

“After watching what has happened to Kansas State basketball (this year), there are some parallels between us being picked No. 2 in the preseason a year ago and finishing seventh,” he quipped.

The Jayhawks were tapped to finish ninth in the conference in this year’s preseason poll, and Price, unconcerned with the voting, wasn’t done with the basketball analogies just yet.

“(The KU basketball team) has that ‘X’ on their shirt every day,” said Price, whose Jayhawks open the season with a three-game weekend series at No. 1 TCU, starting at 6:30 p.m. today.

“We like being the underdog. We’re actually looking forward to it.”

It’ll be a season of firsts in many ways for Price, who enters his ninth year as coach at KU.

The Jayhawks will take their first cuts with new bats and hit the sharp new field turf for the first time. And, following the graduation of his son Robby, this will be the first year Price won’t be coaching one of his sons at KU.

“To go eight straight years and have one of my sons play for us has been one of the highlights of my coaching career,” Price said. “The reason I came here was to coach in the Big 12 and coach at KU with the national name recognition and have my sons be a part of that.

“With all you’ve seen with the facility improvements and the success we’ve had, there’s a great sense of pride in our family over those accomplishments."

Price acknowledged it’d be a challenge for KU to replace the wealth of talent gone from last year’s roster.

Eight major contributors from last year’s team are gone, seven of whom were taken in the 2010 MLB amateur draft, including KU’s top-three hitters: Thompson, Robby Price and Brian Heere.

“To lose three first-team all conference players in one season is pretty unique,” Price said of the trio who combined for 18 homers and 139 RBIs last year.

“One of the things I shared with the team, I don’t think we’re capable individually of replacing those three guys in our lineup,” Price added. “What I’m hopeful for is that we will be more solid one through nine in the batting order.”

Price also won’t have the luxury of calling on Bochy or the reliable lefty Travis Blankenship out of the bullpen, and gone, too, are six-game winner Cameron Selik and sure-handed first baseman Brett Lisher.

But even with all the departed talent to mention, there’s still plenty left over.

Seniors Jimmy Waters, a left-handed slugger who enjoyed a breakout year in 2010, T.J Walz, the staff’s ace (who was also drafted but opted to return), and speedy right fielder Casey Lytle enter the year as co-captains.

Fellow seniors Wally Marciel and shortstop Brandon Macias are expected to up their production, and Price also singled out Jake Marasco, Zac Elgie and Chris Manship as being crucial pieces in the middle of KU’s lineup.

Several of KU’s 10 freshmen are expected to make an instant impact as well, including Kaiana Eldridge, a gifted athlete currently penciled in as the opening-day starter at second base — a spot where Robby Price flourished during his four years as a Jayhawk.

Preseason rankings aside, KU has fared well against top-ranked opponents in recent years, sweeping Texas at Hoglund in 2009 and taking two of three from LSU in Baton Rouge last year.

“Friday can’t get here soon enough for me,” Walz said.

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