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Opinion: Fantastic fielding keeps KU baseball in Big 12 hunt

May 10, 2013

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The toughest players to impress with good glove work are slick fielders themselves. The Kansas University baseball team has an abundance of those, and even they drop a jaw at some of the web gems created by teammates.

A poll of each of the eight regular position players as to what aspect of a teammate’s defense most amazes them produced a variety of answers, an indication of just how much leather the Jayhawks bring to the diamond each game.

“I think it would have to be (Justin) Protacio moving to his right on balls going up the middle,” center fielder Tucker Tharp said of the second baseman. “It’s just unbelievable. He’s so smooth. His hands are quick and he gets the ball over to first base real well.”

Third baseman Jordan Dreiling cited shortstop Kevin Kuntz and Protacio: “Kuntz’s footwork. Every time a groundball is hit to him, it’s almost perfect. It’s identical every play. He has the same feet to his right. He closes in on the ball very well, always sets his feet, makes that perfect throw almost every time. And the way Protacio turns the double play and the way he goes to his left on that spinning play.”

Tharp marveled at Protacio’s range to his right, Dreiling at the second baseman’s range to his left. It’s amazing how much ground Protacio’s instincts and quick feet enable him to cover even though he’s just 5-foot-6.

“We all know our shortstop is our best defender,” Protacio said of Kuntz. “He doesn’t have the strongest arm, but the way his feet move, the way he gains ground toward first base on groundballs, that’s something I look up to.”

Said first baseman Alex DeLeon: “J.D. (Dreiling) and Kuntz are making a lot of nice plays over on the left side. Kevin Kuntz makes all the plays he’s supposed to make and makes all the plus plays too; really good hands and footwork.”

Said Kuntz: “It’s kind of hard to pick one guy. Everyone’s made huge plays. Tucker (Tharp) in center field gets the best jumps of anyone. You see him making diving plays every game. His reads are real good. (Joe) Moroney comes in for him and he has better range than anyone.”

Catcher Ka’iana Eldridge singled out Moroney, saying, “You can ask anyone on the team and they’ll tell you there were so many plays he made in the fall. It was crazy how he ran those down and made diving catches. It was kind of cool to watch.”

Eldridge, moved from second base, where he played as a freshman, to behind the plate, zips strong throws behind runners at first to keep their leads honest and their jerseys filthy.

“(Right fielder) Dakota (Smith) and Ka’iana’s arms are absolute hoses, phenomenal,” left fielder Michael Suiter said. “Overall, our defense is the backbone to our team.”

Smith cited Protacio as “kind of a magician with the glove. A lot of the things are so well-timed, he makes it look really easy. Like (New York Yankees second baseman) Robinson Cano does stuff where it’s like, that’s not an easy play. Proto does that a lot. Slow rollers he kind of picks up in one motion. It’s a tough play. I’ve tried it before just to mess around. It’s a lot harder than they make it look. Infielders do a lot of things I’m not really sure how they do it.”

Strong fielding has helped Kansas go 12-9 in the Big 12 race, one-half game behind three schools tied for first in a conference with such parity that all nine of the schools have losing road records in conference games and seven schools have winning home records. Kansas State, KU’s foe for a three-game series scheduled to start today at 6 p.m. in Hoglund Ballpark, shares first place with Oklahoma and West Virginia.

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