Manhattan This week’s Missouri series just became a whole lot more important for Kansas University’s baseball team.
Needing a win Sunday to clinch a spot in the Big 12 tournament, KU struggled on the mound and saw its bats disappear late in a 9-3 loss to Kansas State at Tointon Family Stadium.
“It’s always tough to lose to another Kansas team,” KU senior catcher James Stanfield said, “especially with something riding on it like that.”
The Jayhawks dropped the weekend series, 2-1, to put themselves in eighth place heading into the final weekend — one-half game in front of Kansas State and one half-game behind Texas Tech.
KU will host sixth-place Missouri for three games this week, while KSU will travel to face Texas Tech.
“It just means we’ve got to go out, and we’ve got to try to sweep (Missouri),” KU freshman outfielder Dakota Smith said. “I think it’s possible. I think we’re capable of doing it. Hopefully, we’ll get it done.”
Sunday’s game started poorly, then unraveled late for KU.
The Wildcats (24-28, 5-6 Big 12) took the early lead against KU starter Thomas Taylor in the bottom of the first, when Jared King drove a 2-2 pitch to the opposite field and into the pine trees over the wall in left for a two-run home run.
It was KSU’s first extra-base hit of the three-game series.
Wade Hinkle followed with a deep blast to right, clearing the K-State scoreboard for a solo shot — the first time the Wildcats hit back-to-back homers since May 4, 2011.
“You could tell from the first inning that Thomas Taylor wasn’t sharp and was out of sync,” KU coach Ritch Price said. “I think that really set the tone for us getting off to a bad start.”
Taylor struggled with K-State’s left-handed-heavy lineup in his short outing. The right-hander — who had conceded a .342 batting average to lefties coming into the game — allowed eight of the 12 lefties he faced to reach base in his 21⁄3 innings.
The junior surrendered four runs in all, striking out two while walking three.
“He couldn’t command the ball down at all,” Price said. “Randy Wetzel’s an outstanding (home-plate) umpire, and he rewards pitchers that pitch down in the zone. And we’re missing above the letters — after he got the first hitter out — to four or five hitters in a row.”
KU still answered in the top of the second to tie the score.
Jordan Dreiling, Chris Manship and Michael Suiter all reached safely to load the bases, and Smith followed with an RBI single to center.
Ka’iana Eldredge added a sac fly, and following a Tucker Tharp single, Stanfield drew a bases-loaded walk to push across the Jayhawks’ third run.
“I thought the momentum was on our side,” Smith said. “They just started hitting late.”
Not only that, the Jayhawks stopped hitting late.
After chasing KSU starter Robert Youngdahl after just 11⁄3 innings, the Jayhawks were held scoreless for the final 72⁄3 innings by three Wildcats relievers.
That was the same Kansas State bullpen which entered the game with a 7.58 earned-run average in Big 12 play.
“They pounded the zone with fastball, pounded it with off-speed,” Stanfield said. “They threw it in the chase zone when they needed to.”
Like Friday, Price didn’t like his team’s approach, as KSU’s pitchers continued to hammer the outside corner.
“I thought we took way too many fastballs for strike one, strike two,” Price said.
KU trailed just 5-3 before K-State pulled away with a four-run eighth. Three of the runs were unearned following the Jayhawks’ only error of the series: a misplay on a grounder by shortstop Kevin Kuntz.
Smith once again was a highlight for KU’s offense from the eight spot, going 3-for-3 with a double, walk and RBI.
KU (20-31, 5-15) will play its opening game against Missouri at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Barring a future change in conference status, it will be the final head-to-head meeting for KU and MU as league foes in any sport.
“We’ve got to win these three,” Stanfield said. “We want to send the Tigers off with something to remember.”