Predicted standings are all about which teams appear to have the best baseball players. Final standings are shaped by the way teams play baseball.
The Kansas University baseball team, the one projected to place in ninth (last) place, ended its Big 12 regular season with nine consecutive conference victories for a 15-9 record and at worst an outright third-place finish. Fittingly, the final one, 9-8 Sunday against West Virginia at Hoglund Ballpark, featured KU getting seven fewer hits (18-11) and still figuring out a way to win.
So what did the Big 12 coaches who picked KU last in the preseason poll miss? Maybe they fell into the trap of judging pure tools and not considering how well the Jayhawks maximize their physical gifts. They tend to develop from year to year.
“It was a little surprising with all the returning players we had,” KU junior left fielder Michael Suiter said of the last-place prediction. “It felt great to prove a lot of people wrong. It definitely motivated us.”
It was Suiter’s turn to deliver a web gem Sunday, when he smothered a ball that off the bat looked as if it belonged to the center fielder. A strong wind had another idea, pushed it toward Suiter. He called off Tucker Tharp, cut a direct path to the ball over his head, braced himself against the wall and made the fifth-inning catch to strand three runners.
Upon returning to the dugout, Suiter was greeted by coach Ritch Price’s words: “You just won us the game.”
That’s typical of Price’s approach.
“The coaching here is phenomenal,” Suiter said. “They see your strong points and see your weaknesses and focus on what you need to improve on.”
It’s how Price and his staff go about that that results in steady improvement.
“All our coaches are really positive,” said Suiter, who batted .226 as a freshman, .309 as a sophomore, .341 so far this season. “No negative vibes from them. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better since I came here as a freshman.”
Sunday starter Frank Duncan threw 82 mph when Price watched him throw a bullpen session as a senior in high school. Price projected a lot of improvement from the right-hander who came to KU as a walk-on. He now throws 92.
Freshman closer Stephen Villines also came to KU as a walk-on.
Jordan Piché, a closer-turned-Friday-night-starter when lefty Wes Benjamin was lost for the season, was lightly recruited.
Price and staff found players with subtle potential and coached them all the way to third place. Impressive.