Both tournament berths have come under Ritch Price’s watch with the first taking place back in 2003 when Kansas entered “Bricktown” as an eight seed and was quickly shown the door by top seeded Nebraska and fourth seeded Missouri.
This year Price and the seventh-seeded Jayhawks hope to hang around a little longer, but just like back in 2003, they might be taking on the conference’s best team in round one. Even though the Bears are seeded second after settling for a co-championship with Nebraska and losing the tiebreaker to the Huskers based on head-to-head competition, Baylor sat atop the conference standings for most of the year and might still be the conference’s best club when they’re pitching is on. Coach Price knows his team will certainly have their hands full.
“It’s really interesting (how Baylor wound up as the two seed),” said Price on his Monday evening call-in show. “Baylor was in first place in our conference for the entire season until the final day this season. Then they end up being tied by Nebraska when they lost Saturday and lost Sunday to Missouri. I thought the weekend that we played them that Baylor was clearly the best team in the Big 12 that we played all season.”
That weekend the Bears handed KU it’s only conference sweep, with the Jayhawks dropping all three games to Baylor in Lawrence. The loss that stung the most for Kansas fans was Sunday’s setback when Kodiak Quick took a 2-1 lead into the final inning but Kansas couldn’t slam the door. Quick tossed 8 1/3 innings that day in mid-April and scattered just 4 hits, but after giving up a single and a walk with one out in the ninth Quick was lifted for Kansas closer Don Czyz. Two wild pitches and an RBI groundout later and Baylor was suddenly on top 3-2 and Bears had busted out the broomsticks.
That might have been the most disappointing loss for the season for Kansas, but the Jayhawks have certainly turned the corner since that setback with Czyz coming into his own and starters Sean Land and Mike Zagurski finding their own strides as well. The improvement of those three hurlers, plus Quick’s confidence based on the eight strong innings he threw against Baylor the first time around, really has the Jayhawks fired up about their chances.
“I think it’s a great matchup for us,” Price said. “They have seven right handed hitters. Kodiak Quick was ahead 2-1 in the ninth the first time we played them. He matches up well with that club being a fastball, slider, sinker guy and yet at the same time Baylor has phenomenal pitching.”
As good as Quick was on Saturday versus Oklahoma State (the junior tossed six innings of one-hit ball to notch his Big 12 leading and school record 10th win of the season), it was Baylor starter, Mark McCormick, who picked up “Big 12 Pitcher of the Week” honors. It was the third time this season that McCormick took home the conference hardware and this time it came courtesy of a six-inning shutout of Missouri that included 12 strikeouts. McCormick sports a great fastball and devastating breaking ball that helped to hold Kansas to just 2 runs over six innings in the first meeting back in April.
While McCormick will certainly be confident coming off of one of his better starts of the year, so will his competition. The Jayhawks have won seven of their last eleven conference games and are playing with a little extra skip in their step according to junior co-captain Matt Baty. Ritch Price agrees with his star player’s observation.
“I think we’re looking forward to it,” Price said of this week’s tournament. “We like our chances. We think we’re playing as good as anybody in this conference the last five weeks and I thought Matt Baty’s comments about the swagger of our team are pretty accurate.”
Finally, Kansas knows that if they don’t want this Big 12 tournament to be their last tourney of the year, the club will have to pick up some quality wins against quality competition. With the possibility of facing the Bears today and potentially Texas tomorrow, Price sees a great shot to improve his club’s tournament resume.
“For us to come in at the last week of the season and have something to play for and make that final jump we almost need to be matched up with big time clubs and find a way to get it done. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
All the tournament action from OKC can be heard on Lawrence’s News Talk 1320 KLWN.