Baseball Preview: Kansas

Fresh off a sweep of top-ten Cal State Fullerton, the Cardinal baseball team returns to action this weekend with a three-game home series against Kansas. The Jayhawks are an up-and-coming baseball program with high hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament this year for the first time in over a decade. They also bring a familiar face with them to Sunken Diamond for the weekend tilt.

It's Stanford only pre-conference series against a club not ranked in the preseason Top 25.  But don't let that fool you, the Kansas Jayhawks are an up-and-coming baseball team poised to make a run at the NCAA Tournament in 2006.  A wealth of hitting and pitching talent returns from a club that won 36 games last year. 

The Jayhawks are off to a 4-1 start this season after taking four-of-five games from lowly Hawaii-Hilo on the road last weekend.  Kansas knocked the cover off of the ball all weekend scoring a total of 51 runs and blasting nine homers.  As a team, they hit a whopping .389 with their only loss an 8-6 defeat in the series finale.  Meanwhile, on the pitching side, the Jayhawk staff notched a very impressive 2.79 ERA as a group.  Of course, normally not much can be concluded about a club after a series against the Vulcans.  The results were impressive, but now comes the real test for the team from Lawrence.

This is a Kansas squad that should be able to score quite a few runs in Big 12 play this season.  Last year's group averaged an impressive seven runs per contest while hitting .292 as a team.  Seven regulars return including four seniors that occupy the top four spots in the batting order.

It all starts in the leadoff position with senior center fielder Matt Baty.  Baty is a four-year starter with excellent speed as evident by his 71 career stolen bases.  His .331 career batting average has resulted in a First Team All-Big 12 selection as a sophomore and Second Team recognition last year.  If the Cardinal pitching staff can keep Baty off of the bases this weekend, then the Kansas offense will not be the same.

#3 hitter Jared Schweitzer enjoyed a breakout 2005 campaign in which he earned Team MVP honors.  Schweitzer, a first baseman, hit a team-best .366 to go with seven home runs and 32 RBI last season.  And if the first weekend is any indication, Schweitzer is set for another huge year in '06.  Over the five games against Hilo, Schweitzer hit a mind-boggling .684 (13-for-19) with a pair of home runs, four RBI, and a 1.053 slugging percentage.

Up the middle, it's the coaches sons leading the way.  Fourth-year head coach Ritch Price has older son Ritchie (a senior) starting at shortstop with younger son Ryne (a sophomore) over at second base.  Ritchie is a four-year starter with a .313 career batting average. 
He'll bat second in the order for the Jayhawks.  Ryne hasn't hit for quite the same average in his career, but possesses more power than his brother.  Ryne hit two home runs last weekend in Hawaii to go with a team-high ten RBI.  Both though had some struggles defensively last year combining for 38 errors.  In fact, defense was definitely not the strong point of the '05 Kansas team as they finished with a subpar .958 fielding percentage.  Fullerton didn't beat themselves in the field last weekend (no errors over three games) and I highly doubt we'll see anything like that defensive effort from a Stanford opponent in this series.

The final senior near the top of the lineup for Kansas is clean-up man Gus Milner.  The right fielder, Milner was drafted in the 47th round last June, but elected to return to Kansas for his final season.  Milner is the top returning power hitter on the team after blasting nine home runs last year.  His 45 RBI are also the most of any returnee.  Milner hit .298 last season and is off to a very strong start this year (11-for-20, 1 HR, 9 RBI).

This Kansas team will have to deal with the losses of outfielder A.J. Van Slyke (.323, 12 HR) and catcher Sean Richardson (.302, 6 HR) - two experienced players who were key members of last season's club.  But every other starter is back and even with the weak competition that the Jayhawks saw last week (that no doubt pads the offensive stats), I expect this will be a formidable opponent for the Stanford pitching staff this weekend.

On the mound, a familiar face returns to Sunken Diamond in Kodiak Quick.  Quick spent his first two seasons at Stanford (2003-04) making 42 appearances and compiling a 3-0 record with a 3.98 ERA and four saves.  However, he made just one start on The Farm and thus transferred to Kansas in an attempt to earn more playing time. 

The move appears to have paid off as Quick became the ace starting pitcher for the Jayhawks last year recording a 10-6 record and a 3.41 ERA in a workhorse-like 121 innings.  Quick again leads the Kansas staff in '06 and has started strong after his seven-inning appearance last weekend (6 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 6 SO).  But the senior right-hander won't get a chance to see the mound this weekend until Sunday morning.  Likely in an attempt to maximize his chances to win at least one game in the series, Coach Price has decided to slide Quick down to the #3 spot in the rotation for this weekend.

Starting on Friday night will be junior lefty Sean Land.  An imposing presence on the mound at 6'5", 230 lbs,. Land made 16 starts last season and went 5-5 with a 4.62 ERA spanning 74 innings.  He has big-game experience as the southpaw defeated Texas late last year with a solid five-inning stint on the hill (one run allowed). 

While Quick and Land saw plenty of time in the weekend rotation last year, the third spot (starting on Saturday this weekend) is a bit of an unknown for the Cardinal.  Ricky Fairchild, a senior right-hander, will get the call after an impressive five-inning start in one of the games last weekend in Hawaii (one run, two walks, five K's).  Fairchild spent the first three seasons of his collegiate career pitching for Tulane making 37 appearances (but no starts).  His ERA with the Green Wave was a lofty 6.27 while he never recorded a save.  Tulane spent much of last season ranked #1 in the country.  Now Fairchild is getting a chance to start and the experienced, but unknown right-hander, will take the mound in the middle contest this weekend.

Last year, the Kansas pitching staff recorded a 4.73 ERA as a team.  Of the eight pitchers who threw 20 or more innings, only three are back in '06 (Quick, Land, and closer Don Czyz).  That makes pitching a bit of a question mark for the Jayhawks to open the season.  Coach Price is certainly looking for the duo of Quick and Land to log plenty of innings this season - and both will likely have to come through with big outings this weekend for the Jayhawks to have a chance in this series.

This is certainly an important early-season test for Kansas.  Baseball America picked them to finish sixth in the ten-team Big 12 Conference in their preseason rankings.  BA also tabbed the Jayhawks as one of the 64 teams to reach the NCAA Tournament - primarily because of their strong returning offense, their experienced and talented #1 starter, and their end-of-the-season performance in 2005.  Kansas won three out of their final four regular season series' last year.  That included a 2-of-3 home series win against eventual national champion Texas.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Matt Baty, CF  (Sr., 10-for-24, .417, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 1 SB)
2. Ritchie Price, SS  (Sr., 7-for-23, .304, 0 HR, 2 RBI, 1 SB)
3. Jared Schweitzer, 1B  (Sr., 13-for-19, .684, 2 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB)
4. Gus Milner, RF  (Sr., 11-for-20, .550, 1 HR, 9 RBI, 1 SB)
5. John Allman, LF  (So., 3-for-17, .176, 0 HR, 5 RBI, 1 SB)
6. Ryne Price, 2B  (So., 6-for-19, .316, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 1 SB)
7. Erik Morrison, 3B  (So., 4-for-16, .250, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 0 SB)
8. Brock Simpson, DH  (So., 5-for-9, .556, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB)  or  Preston Land, DH  (Fr., 4-for-9, .444, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 0 SB)
9. Buck Afenir, C  (Fr., 4-for-12, .333, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 0 SB)

Fri.- Sean Land, LHP  (Jr., 1-0, 1.80 ERA, 5.0 IP, 1 BB, 3 SO)
Sat.- Ricky Fairchild, RHP  (Sr., 1-0, 1.80 ERA, 5.0 IP, 2 BB, 5 SO)
Sun.- Kodiak Quick, RHP  (Sr., 1-0, 1.29 ERA, 7.0 IP, 1 BB, 6 SO)

Notes:
Baty stole 30 bases (in 38 attempts) over 60 games last season ... Schweitzer reached base safely in 16 out of his 23 plate appearances in the five games last weekend ... Allman was second on the club in hitting last year at .350 (started 29 games) ... He hit a whopping .389 in Big 12 play ... Morrison started a Kansas freshman record 63 games last season (was their regular third baseman) ... Afenir is a freshman who has to fill the shoes of the departed Richardson behind the plate ... Interestingly, according to his bio, the Southern California native was recruited by Stanford while in high school ... The Cardinal, of course, ended up with Wichita, Kansas native Brent Milleville as their primary catcher recruit.



STANFORD NOTES
The Cardinal had an excellent opening weekend as they swept then-#5 Cal State Fullerton by the scores of 2-1, 6-5 (ten innings), and 6-3.  The impressive results placed Stanford back in the Baseball America Top 25 as they check in at #19 this week. 

The Stanford pitching staff led the way recording a sparkling 2.25 ERA in the three games versus the Titans.  Junior Greg Reynolds threw very well in his first career Friday start allowing just one run in 6 2/3 innings with no walks and three strike outs.  Senior Matt Manship started strong with three scoreless innings on Saturday, but a four-run top of the fourth knocked the experienced hurler out of the contest.  Manship certainly wants to bounce back with a start that takes him deeper into the ballgame this weekend.  Junior Matt Leva started on Sunday and worked himself through four stressful, albeit scoreless, innings.  Stanford is officially "TBA" on Sunday this weekend, but Leva certainly is a strong candidate to remain in the starting rotation.

Meanwhile, it was a trio of freshmen that dominated out of the bullpen versus Fullerton with all three earning victories.  Lefty Jeremy Bleich fired 3 1/3 no-hit frames over relief appearances on Friday (win) and Sunday (save).  Bleich was a Top 100 recruit last year and a member of the US Junior National Team.  One of his teammates on the Red, White, and Blue was fellow southpaw Sean Ratliff.  Ratliff worked 3 2/3 innings without allowing a run in the extra-inning victory on Saturday.  He surrendered just one hit and struck out an eye-opening six batters.  Finally, it was Austin Yount joining in the fun on Sunday with a pair of scoreless innings with just one hit allowed in earning the win.  Yount was the Arizona High School Player of the Year as a junior and also played for the US Junior National Team - albeit a summer before Bleich and Ratliff.

Yount also got into the act at the plate going 3-for-7 with a double, triple, home run, and four RBI in Friday and Saturday starts at third base.  Expect to see plenty more of Yount over at the hot corner with the season-ending shoulder injury to Adam Sorgi.  Preseason All-American Michael Taylor also had a strong opening weekend rapping out four hits in 11 at-bats (.364) to go with a home run during Sunday's contest.  As expected, Taylor was hitting third in the lineup.

Stanford didn't overpower a talented Fullerton pitching staff last weekend, but they did enough recording plenty of clutch RBI hits en route to scoring 14 runs over the three games.  The Cardinal also homered four times during the series.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Jim Rapoport, CF  (Jr., 3-for-11, .273, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB)
2. Chris Minaker, SS  (Sr., 2-for-13, .154, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB)
3. Michael Taylor, RF  (So., 4-for-11, .364, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 SB)
4. Jason Castro, 1B  (Fr., 2-for-11, .182, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB)
5. John Hester, C  (Sr., 2-for-11, .182, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 0 SB)
6. Chris Lewis, 2B  (Sr., 1-for-9, .111, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 0 SB)
7. Brian Juhl, DH  (So., 1-for-7, .143, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 0 SB)
8. Ryan Seawell, LF  (Jr., 2-for-7, .286, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 0 SB)
9. Austin Yount, 3B  (Fr., 3-for-7, .429, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB)

Fri.- Greg Reynolds, RHP  (Jr., 0-0, 1.35 ERA, 6 2/3 IP, 0 BB, 3 SO)
Sat.- Matt Manship, RHP  (Sr., 0-0, 10.80 ERA, 3 1/3 IP, 0 BB, 2 SO)
Sun.- TBA

Notes:
Minaker, Stanford's leading hitter throughout Fall Ball and January intrasquads, was held to just two hits last weekend ... He did go the entire series without a strike out though ... Castro hit clean-up in the batting order on both Friday and Saturday ... The freshman from Castro Valley made his first career hit a home run on Saturday afternoon ... Juhl earned the "start" at DH in each of the first two games before Brendan Domaracki got the nod on Sunday ... Frosh Cord Phelps went 1-for-3 in his start at third base for Yount (who pitched out of the bullpen) on Sunday.



ODDS AND ENDS
* Sunday's series finale is an 11:00 A.M. start time at Sunken Diamond.

* Kansas was picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 according to the conferences preseason coaches poll.

* Kodiak Quick tied a school-record with ten victories last year.  He earned Second Team All-Big 12 honors for his efforts.

* Closer Don Czyz had a solid '05 campaign racking up ten saves to go with a 3.47 ERA over 36 games.  His 94 career appearances is a school record.

* Kansas' last NCAA Tournament berth was in 1994.

* Head coach Ritch Price has led the Jayhawks to three straight 30-win season (first time in school history) in his first three years at the helm.  Price's Cal Poly teams (where he was the head coach for eight years prior to taking over in Lawrence) played Stanford every year when he was leading the Mustangs (the annual series was dropped after Price left for Kansas).  The Jayhawks and Cardinal started playing each other in Price's second year (2004).  Stanford has swept Kansas in each of last two seasons at Sunken Diamond.

* Price has Bay Area ties (which would explain playing the Cardinal every season).  He was head coach at DeAnza Community College in Cupertino from 1987 to 1994.  Before that, he led the Menlo College baseball program for four years (1983-86).

* Stanford swept its season-opening series for the fourth consecutive year.

* Last year's Stanford-Kansas scores: 7-3, 9-2, and 7-6.  Quick did not pitch in any of the three games as was agreed upon in the terms regarding his release from Stanford.

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