KU takes control in ninth inning to advance past K-State in Big 12 tournament

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

Kansas designated hitter Lenny Ashby yells out in celebration after hitting a home run against Houston on Saturday, May 11th, 2024, at Hoglund Ballpark in Lawrence.

After blowing back-to-back ninth-inning leads in its series against Texas over the weekend, the Kansas baseball team wasn’t going to let another one slip away on Tuesday morning.

Hard-throwing KU closer Hunter Cranton struck out consecutive Kansas State batters, then got the previously 3-for-3 shortstop Kaelen Culpepper to fly out, preserving a 2-1 victory for the Jayhawks on the opening day of the Big 12 Conference tournament at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

“Love how our guys competed,” KU coach Dan Fitzgerald said in the postgame press conference, “and to think that 23 months ago, we started on a journey of rebuilding this thing, and to have these guys and all their teammates be playing the way they are is really awesome.”

KU had broken a tie in the ninth inning against K-State closer Tyson Neighbors when Lenny Ashby sent a high fly ball to the wall in left field that was played awkwardly by the outfielder Chuck Ingram, resulting in a triple, then Collier Cranford hit a sacrifice fly to bring in pinch runner Sam Hunt.

“Runner on third, nobody out, we do it every single day at practice,” Cranford said. “We call it making your free throws. So yeah, just trying to get a ball up in the zone, just touch it, get it out in the outfield and let Sam’s speed get him home.”

The Jayhawks stranded 10 Wildcat runners on base in total, wiggling out of one jam after another to keep the game even after Culpepper tied it in the fifth.

KU got its first run when, after three scoreless innings with the Jayhawks’ Evan Shaw and Wildcats’ Josh Wintroub in full control, Ben Hartl broke through as the leadoff hitter in the fourth, seizing on a fastball for a home run to center field in the major-league ballpark to put KU in front.

The Wildcats removed Wintroub soon after, perhaps with an eye toward the forthcoming days of the tournament, and brought in Cole Wisenbaker, who was able to end the frame.

Shaw stayed locked in to strike out two more batters, but allowed a double to David Bishop and walked Jaden Parsons on a full count. Cayden Phillips hit a line drive that initially challenged Cranford, but the Jayhawks were able to get the final out of the inning.

Wisenbaker also escaped a jam by striking out Hartl with two runners on to get KSU back to the home half of the fifth.

That paid off when Culpepper evened the score on an RBI single to left field. Shaw proceeded to walk KSU’s top hitter Brady Day, setting up Nick English for another clutch at-bat, of which he had so many during the teams’ series in Manhattan at the start of the month.

However, after a mound visit, Shaw, with a career-high pitch count, was able to induce a double play to prevent further damage and give way to Ethan Lanthier for the following inning.

“He’s on short rest, and he does that,” Cranton said of Shaw’s showing. “That’s really clutch out of him to give us a long start like that, kind of let the bullpen go an inning apiece which is huge for us.”

Lanthier had challenges of his own and brought on a second baserunner with two outs, but managed to strike out Ingram to get the Jayhawks to the seventh inning.

With KU’s offense stagnating, it was then Cooper Moore’s turn to lock down the Wildcats. Culpepper got his third hit of the game before English came through with a full-count single that put runners at the corners. English quickly stole third during the following at-bat for Kyan Lodice.

Lodice struck out on four pitches as K-State left its ninth and 10th runners of the game on base.

KU finally got its first hit against a KSU reliever when John Nett smacked a first-pitch single against Jackson Wentworth in the top of the eighth, and Kodey Shojinaga got the better of Wentworth at the end of a lengthy at-bat for a walk. So Wentworth gave way to the Wildcats’ Neighbors, who was able to strike out Jake English.

Tegan Cain breezed through the eighth to set up KU’s ninth-inning heroics.

The Jayhawks avenged last year’s season-ending 7-1 tournament loss to Kansas State, and evened the season series with the Wildcats at 2-2.

“All my focus was on today and all these guys’ focus was on today,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s just how we do it.”

KU caught a scheduling-related break later on Tuesday when ninth-seeded TCU upset West Virginia. Because KU has a higher seed than TCU, it now gets to skip Wednesday’s action entirely. Instead, it will play on Thursday at 12:30 p.m. against the winner of Wednesday’s game between TCU and top seed Oklahoma. The Jayhawks will have their top two starters appropriately rested for action on Thursday and Friday.


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