The road Kansas traveled to that .500 mark is what makes KU's 2004 story so interesting. It was a season of rivalry wins, heartbreaking losses, broken records and even a no-hitter.
While the end result wasn't what any ‘Hawks had initially hoped for, 2004 was still a step in the right direction. Thanks to two Big 12 series wins in the final two weekends of the season, the Jayhawks topped the 30-win plateau for the second straight year – a feat that hadn't been accomplished in 10 years.
The season opening series with Hawaii-Hilo was a victory in paradise for Kansas, as the Jayhawks emerged from the islands with a 5-2 series win over the Vulcans. From there Kansas would go on to post a non-conference record of 24-12-1. The "non-con" slate was highlighted by a five-pitcher no-hitter over Texas Southern on February 1st, and an exciting 13-6 home win over #10 Wichita State on April 7th.
The Jayhawks would have swept the season series with the Shockers had they held on in Wichita two weeks later. A controversial call at first base allowed WSU to tie it up in the ninth inning and the Shockers later won the game 6-5 in the 10th to earn a season split with Kansas. The second game with the Shockers was one of eleven one-run losses. Wichita State may have tripped up Kansas on that night, but the Jayhawks' other two major rivals wouldn't get off so easily.
The schedule makers set Ritch Price's club up to close out the year with both of the program's top conference rivals. Heading into the final two weekends of conference play, the Jayhawks were beaten and battered and appeared to be limping to the finish line with a 2-18 conference record.
A team offense that had dropped off in conference play -- coupled with an inexperienced bullpen -- had left Kansas with little hope of qualifying for the Big 12 tournament in Arlington, TX. Kansas needed a perfect sweep of their top two rivals to have any shot at the postseason. Six wins in six games was required, and they nearly pulled it off.
The Missouri Tigers were the first conference rival on KU's plate and the Hawks feasted on the Tigers in Lawrence, taking two of three games (11-6, 1-2, 4-3) from the team that ultimately finished one run shy of winning the Big 12 tournament in Arlington. The baseball series win over Mizzou was especially sweet because it clinched the Border War Trophy for the entire KU Athletic Department.
The following weekend, Kansas rode the momentum of their first conference series win into a series that proved to be their first conference series sweep. The ‘Hawks topped Kansas State once in Lawrence (5-3), and twice in the Little Apple (19-6, 7-4) to close out the year on a winning note. By taking five of their last six the 2004 Jayhawks became just the fourth team in school history to post back-to-back .500 seasons.
Other milestones in 2004 included multiple home run records, a new individual hitting streak mark and a school record 8 players named to the Big 12 Coaches' All-Conference team.
Matt Baty was one of those all-conference players. The sophomore centerfielder hit .344 and stole 26 bases in his second Kansas campaign en route to becoming the first ever Jayhawk to be named to the coaches' first team.
Matt's older brother, Ryan, finished his spectacular Kansas career on a high note by breaking the school's career doubles record (68) and finishing just one hit shy of the career hits mark (274 by Darryl Monroe '91-'94). Baty also set a new record for consecutive games with a hit (21 games), snapping teammate Matt Tribble's mark of twenty games from the 2003 season.
The first baseman from Wichita also excelled off the field in 2004 as he was named the Senior Male Scholar Athlete of the Year.
While total team hits (697) came in record numbers in 2004, the long ball was especially kind to Kansas this past season. The 2004 Jayhawk sluggers racked up a school record 74 home runs, smashing the 1993 record of 63. A major part of that was junior third baseman Travis Metcalf.
Metcalf broke two home run records in his final season in Lawrence. His 18 homers broke Russ Blaylock‘s single season mark of 17 set back in 1981, and his career total of 29 was also best on the all-time list, breaking Matt Gundelfinger's mark of 27 that was posted from 1978-1980. Metcalf's standout junior season helped him climb the major league baseball draft boards all the way to the eleventh round where the Texas Rangers selected him with the 321st pick.
The 2004 season had it all. It had everything except a postseason berth. While some teams might hang their heads after falling short of their ultimate goal, this Kansas team did not.
The Jayhawks reeled off four consecutive wins after being eliminated from postseason play, showing great fight and determination to build towards a brighter future even though 2004 would end a lot sooner than hoped.
Five players who helped lay the groundwork for future success were seniors Baty, Tribble, Ryan Knippschild, Chris Smart and Kyle Kilgo. Each impacted the program in his own special way and will be greatly missed next year.
What’s left behind though is a talented lineup that includes 2004 team MVP Sean Richardson, a talented quartet of sophomore position players; Ritchie Price, Matt Baty, A.J. Van Slyke and Jared Schweitzer, and some strong arms with great potential on the mound including Mike Zagurski, Clint Schambach, Sean Land, Don Czyz and Ryotaro Hayakawa.
2005 looks to be another promising year, and if it turns out to be half as interesting as this past season, then Jayhawk fans will really be in for a treat.