KU baseball faces pivotal Texas series with postseason positioning at stake

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Special to the Journal-World

Kansas infielder Chase Diggins points to the dugout after hitting a home run against Houston on Saturday, May 11th, 2024, at Hoglund Ballpark in Lawrence.

The Kansas baseball team avoided disaster over the weekend, bouncing back from a blowout loss at home to 12th-place Houston with back-to-back wins to claim the series.

The Jayhawks certainly didn’t make it easy, as Saturday’s victory in particular required a comeback from down 8-1. And now KU’s (29-18, 15-12 Big 12 Conference) task gets substantially more difficult, as it will conclude the regular season with a three-game road series at Texas (32-20, 17-10) beginning Thursday in what could be the schools’ final meeting before the Longhorns leave for the Southeastern Conference.

Entering the Houston series, the Jayhawks were firmly on the postseason bubble, but neither Baseball America nor D1baseball projected them in the field; in fact, Baseball America didn’t even have KU in its first four out or next four out.

The Jayhawks sit at No. 65 in the NCAA’s RPI ranking with two weeks to go until the 64-team tournament field gets selected. Texas climbed seven spots to No. 44 after taking two out of three on the road from fellow tournament hopeful UCF. Needless to say, the Jayhawks’ postseason fate, as they look for their first NCAA bid in a decade, could depend on how much of a fight they put up in Austin.

Head coach Dan Fitzgerald said on his “Hawk Talk” radio show on Monday that part of KU’s success since his staff arrived two years ago has been a result of sticking to a plan and going through it day by day, rather than looking too far ahead. He did, however, provide some perspective on the Jayhawks’ outlook.

“(KU baseball analytics staffer Ryan) Holland could bust out his calculator and tell us exactly what we need to do,” Fitzgerald said. “But the bottom line is winning on the road, if you look at every metric in college baseball right now, they’re in our favor, with the exception of RPI, and RPI is most influenced by road wins. So we’re going on the road to play a really great opponent that would give us more Quad 1 victories.”

The main thing that got KU in trouble against Houston is that its typically rock-solid starting duo of senior Reese Dutton (on Friday) and Dominic Voegele (on Saturday) had an off weekend. Dutton matched his highest earned-run total allowed of the year, with four, and did so while allowing three home runs, as many as he had given up the rest of the season. UH hit Voegele for eight earned runs, which was double what he had yielded in any other outing.

What bailed the Jayhawks out was their wide-ranging success on offense. They continue to possess the league’s second-highest batting average, and it’s coming from all sorts of places. Infielder Chase Diggins went 3-for-4 with a three-run home run on Saturday; he hadn’t played for the entirety of April.

“We talk a lot in the program about you just keep hitting the rock and at some point it breaks, and the guys really did that,” Fitzgerald said. “The Diggins home run was big because I think it sucked the life out of their dugout a little bit.”

Four KU players — John Nett, Kodey Shojinaga, Jake English and Michael Brooks — rank in the top 20 in the Big 12 in batting average. The only other team with as many, as it happens, is Texas.

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Special to the Journal-World

Kansas infielder Jake English celebrates a double against Houston on Saturday, May 11th, 2024, at Hoglund Ballpark in Lawrence.

And what Texas has that no one else does to the same degree is power. The Longhorns are the league’s top slugging team and have hit 103 home runs, 38 more than KU. Texas has four players in its starting lineup with an OPS greater than 1, including Max Belyeu (1.165 OPS, 17 home runs), Jared Thomas (1.090, 14), Jalin Flores (1.084, 17) and Kimble Schuessler (1.003, eight). Thomas, by the way, is 15-for-15 on stolen bases on the season, while Flores and Belyeu are tied for the league lead in home runs.

photo by: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

Texas pitcher Lebarron Johnson Jr. (57) delivers to a Kansas State batter during an NCAA college baseball game on Thursday, March 27, 2024, in Manhattan.

photo by: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

Texas’ Jalin Flores (1) runs the bases after hitting a homerun during the first inning of an NCAA college baseball game against Kansas State on Thursday, March 27, 2024, in Manhattan.

photo by: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

Kansas State’s Brendan Jones (5) is tagged out by Texas shortstop Jalin Flores (1) after getting caught in a rundown near second baseman Dee Kennedy (30) during the second inning of an NCAA college baseball game on Thursday, March 27, 2024, in Manhattan.

Like KU, UT has a strong duo in Max Grubbs (3.52 ERA) and Ace Whitehead (3.95), and closer Gage Boehm has picked up seven saves. The Longhorns have been a bit less predictable otherwise. Grubbs and Whitehead have seen their roles move somewhat throughout the year, and Lebarron Johnson Jr., a second-team All-American last season who entered the year as the Longhorns’ Friday night starter, has slumped to a 6.03 ERA and has been moved to Sundays. On the year, 12 different players have made at least one start on the mound for UT.

“If they’ve had an Achilles heel at all, it’s been more on the pitching side,” Fitzgerald said. “But they’re loaded on the pitching side, they can play defense, they play really well at home and they’ve got a really good lineup. The good news is I could say that about 10 other teams in the Big 12 right now, so we’re battle-tested.”

One good sign for the Jayhawks is that the Longhorns were extremely and uncharacteristically inconsistent earlier in the year. Their season has featured home losses against the likes of BYU (No. 130 in RPI, twice), Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (No. 205), UT Rio Grande Valley (No. 209) and Washington (No. 152, twice). However, those almost all took place before the recent run of five consecutive conference series wins that includes Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, the league’s top two teams, as UT seems to have found its groove.

Looking ahead, even with a strong showing at Texas, KU may need to cement its positioning further in the Big 12 tournament. If the season ended today, the sixth-seeded Jayhawks would face TCU in the No. 6 vs. No. 7 matchup next Tuesday in Arlington, Texas, though there remains potential for some movement among the seedings. KU is just one game behind Cincinnati and two back of Texas and West Virginia.

Last year, KU upset Texas on the first day of the Big 12 tournament thanks to a grand slam by Janson Reeder


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