Jayhawks to open Big 12 tournament with Sunflower Showdown matinee

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

Kansas catcher Ben Hartl connects for a home run against Houston on Saturday, May 11th, 2024, at Hoglund Ballpark in Lawrence.

The Kansas baseball team had multiple chances at potentially season-defining wins on the road at nationally ranked Texas and saw each one slip out of its grasp.

Ben Hartl’s go-ahead two-run home run with the Jayhawks down to their last strike Thursday night was immediately canceled out when the Longhorns strung together a leadoff home run, four-pitch walk and walk-off double off Hunter Cranton in the bottom of the ninth. The following day, Dominic Voegele and Ethan Lanthier combined to allow one unearned run on three hits in eight innings, but this time Texas got to Cooper Moore for a second straight walk-off.

With the series already clinched for the Longhorns, they proceeded to crush KU’s hopes on a third straight day, as the Jayhawks nearly rallied from down 8-1 (as they had against Houston the previous weekend) only for Texas closer Gage Boehm to complete a seven-out save for the 9-7 victory.

“Down 8-1, I had no concerns that we were going to make it a game,” KU coach Dan Fitzgerald said in a press release. “When you don’t have your bullets in the bullpen, it’s hard to stop a good offense. Today we needed some guys to step up and we’re going to need those same guys to step up in the Big 12 Tournament if we’re going to make the run that we need to make.”

The result of the series sweep was that the Jayhawks fell all the way to No. 73 in the NCAA’s RPI metric and now, as the No. 7 seed of 10 teams in the Big 12 Championship, must string together a series of wins against favored opponents to launch themselves back into the postseason picture.

The KU baseball team has not won multiple games in a Big 12 tournament since 2013, when it took three in a row before falling in the title game (and did not make the NCAA Tournament).

It will have to start its campaign against the team that halted its momentum in the first place, in a series with some similarities to the three-game swing at Texas. That would be rival Kansas State, which enters as the No. 6 seed but 32 spots ahead of KU in RPI, and will be its first foe in Arlington, Texas, at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning.

The Jayhawks went into Manhattan on May 3 having won 11 of their previous 12 games, but lost two out of three by a combined three runs, including once after loading the bases with no outs in the ninth inning.

Since then, the Wildcats have gone 3-3, with a series loss at West Virginia and series win against BYU.

KSU has not been a great hitting team statistically, at 11th in the conference in batting average, but the Wildcats have played effective small ball by drawing lots of walks and leading the league in stolen bases. That’s a credit to junior center fielder Brendan Jones, whose 37 stolen bases are nearly double the next closest player in the conference and whose .438 on-base percentage is second among qualifying Wildcats to the team’s top hitter, second baseman Brady Day.

photo by: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

Kansas State’s Brady Day (7) during an NCAA college baseball game on Wednesday, March 13, 2024, in Manhattan.

The clutch hits in each of K-State’s victories over KU came from catcher/outfielder Nick English, an Olathe native who happens to be the brother of the Jayhawks’ power-hitting catcher Jake English. Nick, however, has gone just 2-for-19 since the Sunflower Showdown.

photo by: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

Kansas State’s Nick English (8) reacts after hitting a three-run double during an NCAA college baseball game against Texas on Thursday, March 27, 2024, in Manhattan.

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Journal-World

Kansas catcher Jake English celebrates getting a double against Missouri, Tuesday, March 19, 2024, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

photo by: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

Kansas State pitcher Owen Boerema delivers to a Holy Cross batter during an NCAA college baseball game on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024, in Manhattan.

photo by: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

Kansas State pitcher Jackson Wentworth (30) during an NCAA college baseball game on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024, in Manhattan.

Managing the rotation could be an interesting task for both teams with a three-day turnaround following the regular season’s conclusion. The tournament has a somewhat convoluted double-elimination format, so both teams will be playing next on either Wednesday or Thursday as well. Some starters will take the mound on short rest. Reese Dutton threw 5 2/3 innings on Thursday, while Voegele pitched five on Friday.

If KU loses, it will play the loser of West Virginia-TCU on Wednesday morning, back in the 9 a.m. time slot with a chance to advance and play yet again at 9 a.m. Thursday.

The possible outcomes if KU wins are more complicated. The Jayhawks would have to play top-seeded Oklahoma at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday if West Virginia beats TCU. However, if the Horned Frogs were to upset the Mountaineers, KU would get the chance to bypass the second day of the tournament entirely and skip directly to a game against the Oklahoma-TCU winner on Thursday at 12:30 p.m.

Either result would have implications for the Jayhawks’ postseason prospects; skipping a round gives them added rest and moves them closer to the title game and a prospective automatic bid but also provides one fewer resume-boosting opportunity if they end up making a run but not winning the tournament outright.

Last year, KU’s Big 12 run ended when it lost back-to-back games against TCU and Kansas State.

All-conference honors

Voegele was named the Big 12’s freshman of the year on Monday to headline a group of eight Jayhawks given all-conference honors.

Voegele, a native of Columbia, Illinois, who was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of high school, opted instead to attend KU and has shone as the Jayhawks’ Saturday night starter, accruing a 7-2 record with a 3.32 ERA. He was also named second-team all-conference and a member of the all-freshman team.

His selection as freshman of the year follows Kodey Shojinaga’s last season.

“Dom is incredibly mature and competes at a very high level,” Fitzgerald said in a release. “He’s an outstanding teammate and worker and will be the foundation of our rotation for the next two years. We are proud that we’ve had back-to-back Big 12 Freshman of the Year (recipients).”

English, who has stepped up his offensive production as a catcher this season to match his defensive bona fides, is hitting .324 and has posted team-high numbers in home runs (13) and RBIs (47). He was named to the all-conference first team.

Other honorees included second-teamers Dutton and Shojinaga and honorable mentions Michael Brooks, Cranton, Hartl and John Nett.


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