Baseball Preview: Kansas

One of the surprise teams of 2006 visits Sunken Diamond this weekend as the Kansas Jayhawks take on the Cardinal in a three-game series. Kansas won a series from Stanford last season on their way to a berth in the NCAA Tournament. They're off to a hot start this year, but against far weaker competition than what Stanford has been facing. The series begins Friday night and we've got a preview.

A chief reason why the Stanford Cardinal reached the NCAA Tournament last year was their 5-1 early-season record against nationally ranked Cal State Fullerton and Texas.  This year, the Cardinal had to travel to Fullerton and Texas and the results weren't the same.  A six-game stretch against two of the most storied college baseball programs in the country saw Stanford post just one win.  That means the Cardinal are going to have play much better in their remaining pre-conference series' to boost their record and computer ranking. 

Last year, Stanford dropped non-conference series' to Kansas and USC, but survived because of their other successes against Fullerton and Texas.  Starting this weekend, Kansas, California, and USC make their way to Sunken Diamond for non-conference, three-game sets.  And this year, the Cardinal will need to take care of business in this portion of their schedule because of the early hole they've put themselves in.  It begins with a matchup against the Jayhawks.

2006 was a year to remember for the Kansas Jayhawks as head coach Ritch Price took his club to the postseason for the first time in 12 years.  Kansas went 43-25 last year, won the Big 12 Tournament championship, and earned the #2 seed at the Corvallis Regional hosted by Oregon State.  The Jayhawks knocked off third-seeded Hawaii in their first postseason contest, before back-to-back losses to the host Beavers and Hawaii to end their season.  Still, it was a banner season for the team from Lawrence - a club that has traditionally sat near the bottom of the Big 12 in recent years.

Price took over at Kansas in 2003 and saw gradual improvement in his first four seasons capped off by the postseason berth last year.  But the head coach will be hard-pressed to duplicate the 2006 success this year.  All three weekend starting pitchers from last season, including former Stanford hurler Kodiak Quick (11-4, 3.62 ERA in '06) have moved on.  The trio combined for 54 starts and 294 innings a year ago.  On the hitting side, top hitter Jared Schweitzer (.369, 11 HR, 41 RBI) graduated along with three other key offensive starters.  The result should be a rebuilding year in 2007.

The Jayhawks are off to a 7-1 start this season, but little can be concluded from their first two series' of the year.  Kansas started off with a five-game sweep at perennial cupcake Hawaii-Hilo before taking two-of-three from South Dakota State in a series played in Minneapolis.  The Jayhawks were supposed to play North Dakota State at home last weekend, but the entire series was cancelled due to wet and cold weather.  Friday's series-opener against the Cardinal will be Kansas' first game since February 11.

Stanford, meanwhile, is trying to get back to .500 after losing two-of-three at 14th ranked Texas last weekend.  The Cardinal lost a pair of close decisions in the first two games (5-3 and 5-2) before a wild 10-8 win in the finale.  Stanford returned home for a non-conference game against San Francisco on Tuesday and posted a solid 4-1 victory against the Dons - a team that participated in the NCAA Tournament last season.  On the strength of those two wins, the Cardinal have climbed to 4-5 and have put themselves in a position where two wins against the Jayhawks will bring them back to .500.

It's a big weekend for the Stanford starting pitching rotation.  Nolan Gallagher allowed three home runs in last Friday's loss at Texas (6 IP, 5 H, 4 R) and is still looking for his first win of 2007.  Gallagher, who gets the start in the series-opener this weekend, is 0-2 with a 7.62 ERA (11 ER/13.0 IP) overall.

The new-look Kansas rotation features three left-handed pitchers and is led by junior Zach Ashwood.  Ashwood, who stands 6'5", is a transfer from TCU where he went 0-1 with a 5.08 ERA in 33 innings last season.  Ashwood has pitched well in his first two starts this year allowing only three earned runs in 10 2/3 innings with 14 strikeouts, but those stats (along with every other Kansas player) should be taken with a grain of salt considering their opposition.  It's going to be a big step up for Ashwood this season going from TCU to a Friday role for a Big 12 team.

Stanford faces another southpaw on Saturday afternoon in sophomore Nick Czyz.  Czyz saw significant time on the hill as a freshman last year compiling a 5.11 ERA in 49 innings.  Czyz will often struggle with his control, but has posted impressive strikeout totals thus far in his collegiate career.  In two starts this season, Czyz has surrendered only two earned runs in 9 1/3 innings with seven walks and a whopping 14 strikeouts.

The Cardinal will counter with freshman Jeff Inman on Saturday.  Inman was up-and-down in Texas last weekend allowing four runs in his five innings as he suffered his first career loss.  The hard-throwing right-hander owns a 6.14 ERA in 14 2/3 innings this season.

While Gallagher and Inman could use solid outings this weekend to bolster their confidence, the same could be said for Sunday starter Jeremy Bleich.  Stanford won the finale in Texas, but it was primarily on the strength of their bats.  Bleich was tagged for 11 hits and five runs in his 5 1/3 innings and received a no-decision.  Through three starts, Bleich possesses a 6.89 ERA (12 ER/15.2 IP) and an 0-1 record.  The lefty has started strong in his first three appearances, but then has struggled when the middle innings arrive.  That will be something to watch on Sunday.

The third lefty in the Kansas rotation is sophomore Andy Marks.  Like Czyz, Marks saw significant time on the mound as a freshman recording a 5.35 ERA in 33 innings.  Marks has been very effective in his first two starts this year with just one run allowed in 12 1/3 innings with 14 strikeouts.

Despite the impressive numbers of Ashwood, Czyz, and Marks this early-season, these are three new starting pitchers for the Jayhawks.  Stanford is countering with two starting pitchers (Gallagher and Bleich) will held that role last season and a highly regarded freshman (Inman) who has all of the tools to become a star.  The Stanford offense struggled against the top of the Texas rotation last weekend.  It would be a concern if those same offensive results (five runs and 26 strikeouts in the first two games) occurred again this weekend.

Kansas has been picked ninth (of ten teams) in the preseason Big 12 Conference coaches poll.  It's an all new starting rotation and a number of key hitters from last year's tournament squad are gone.  Despite the weak competition, the Jayhawks are hitting just .262 as a team through eight games.  Five key starters are back this season led by left fielder and #3 hitter John Allman.  A Second Team All-Big 12 selection last year, Allman hit .333 (second on the club) with six home runs and 52 RBI a season ago. 

Price's son, Ryne, is an experienced second baseman.  Ryne, a junior, hit nine home runs in just 28 games (.256 AVG) in an injury-riddled 2006 season.  Sophomore first baseman Preston Land had a solid rookie campaign when he hit .314 with nine home runs and 33 RBI while Brock Simpson (.293, 5 HR, 33 RBI) takes over in the leadoff spot in the lineup.

It's been a family affair on this Kansas team in recent years as Ritchie Price was a four-year starter at shortstop from 2003 through 2006.  Ritchie has moved on, but a new Price is now on the club in freshman Robby.  The Kansas High School Player of the Year last spring, Robby is expected to be a key player on the '07 team at the hot corner. 

On the Stanford side, it could be a big weekend for the key right-handed bats in the lineup with KU expected to start three lefties on the mound.  Michael Taylor is in need of a big series as the slugging outfielder owns just a .216 average (8-for-37) through nine games this season.  Taylor has had difficulties making contact of late striking out seven times in the last four games.

Third baseman Ryan Seawell is coming around after missing nearly all of the preseason with a hamstring injury.  Seawell, who is also adjusting to a new position, homered early in the Texas series and is currently batting .263 in 19 at-bats.  Brent Milleville should also be a key player this weekend as the first baseman/catcher has five hits in 18 at-bats and is earning regular playing time after an injury also knocked him out for much of the preseason.  Meanwhile, the switch-hitting Brian Juhl, who is second on the club with a .321 batting average, has been swinging it better from the right side of the plate and could be in-line for a big weekend.

One name that you probably won't see much of in this series is Adam Sorgi.  Sorgi has appeared in just three of the first nine games this season and has one hit in five at-bats.  The redshirt junior is still being bothered by his shoulder and is unable to play in the field.  With a number of other hitters emerging and worthy of regular playing time at DH (notably Milleville and Jason Castro) plus the bevy of left-handers scheduled to pitch this weekend, Sorgi likely won't get much time at the plate against the Jayhawks.  It also doesn't look good for his return to the field anytime in the near future.

Kansas Jayhawks (7-1)  at  Stanford Cardinal (4-5)

Kansas Projected Lineup
C - Joe Servais  (Jr., .235, 0 HR, 4 RBI)  or  Buck Afenir  (So., .250, 1 HR, 3 RBI)
1B - Preston Land  (So., .235, 0 HR, 2 RBI)
2B - Ryne Price  (Jr., .296, 2 HR, 5 RBI)
3B - Robby Price  (Fr., .200, 0 HR, 3 RBI)
SS - Erik Morrison  (Jr., .194, 1 HR, 6 RBI)
LF - John Allman  (Jr., .375, 0 HR, 5 RBI)
CF - Kyle Murphy  (Sr., .381, 1 HR, 4 RBI)
RF - Brock Simpson  (Jr., .206, 0 HR, 7 RBI)
DH - Casey Larson  (Jr., .250, 0 HR, 4 RBI)

Fri. - Zach Ashwood, LHP  (Jr., 1-0, 2.53 ERA, 10.2 IP, 4 BB, 14 SO)
Sat. - Nick Czyz, LHP  (So., 1-0, 1.93 ERA, 9.1 IP, 7 BB, 14 SO)
Sun. - Andy Marks, LHP  (So., 2-0, 0.73 ERA, 12.1 IP, 2 BB, 14 SO)

Stanford Projected Lineup
C - Brian Juhl  (Jr., .321, 1 HR, 2 RBI)
1B - Jason Castro  (So., 1-for-12, 0 HR, 0 RBI)
2B - Austin Yount  (So., .250, 0 HR, 4 RBI)  or  Cord Phelps  (So., .310, 0 HR, 2 RBI)
3B - Ryan Seawell  (Sr., .263, 1 HR, 2 RBI)
SS - Adam Gaylord  (Fr., .355, 0 HR, 5 RBI)
LF - Joey August  (So., .313, 0 HR, 4 RBI)
CF - Sean Ratliff  (So., .308, 1 HR, 3 RBI)
RF - Michael Taylor  (Jr., .216, 1 HR, 6 RBI)
DH - Brent Milleville  (So., .278, 0 HR, 5 RBI)

Fri. - Nolan Gallagher, RHP  (Jr., 0-2, 7.62 ERA, 13.0 IP, 4 BB, 9 SO)
Sat. - Jeff Inman, RHP  (Fr., 1-1, 6.14 ERA, 14.2 IP, 5 BB, 14 SO)
Sun. - Jeremy Bleich, LHP  (So., 0-1, 6.89 ERA, 15.2 IP, 5 BB, 7 SO)

Stanford will look to continue their strong play at home.  The Cardinal are a perfect 3-0 at Sunken Diamond this season after their rain-shortened two-game sweep of Fresno State and the midweek victory over San Francisco.  Stanford pitchers have allowed just seven runs in their three home games.

Offensively, freshman shortstop Adam Gaylord continues to lead the offense.  Gaylord, who has been batting ninth in the order, is currently riding a seven-game hitting streak while his .355 average (11-for-31) is tops on the club.  Meanwhile, sophomore Joey August had an impressive game against the Dons earlier this week picking-up two hits.  Increased production from August will be key with left fielder Toby Gerhart out with an injury.

The top pitchers out of the bullpen are starting to emerge.  Junior David Stringer (3.12 ERA in 8 2/3 IP) recorded his second save of the year with three shutout innings to end the USF game.  Stringer has appeared in five of Stanford's first nine games this season.  Sophomore Max Fearnow (1.69 ERA in 5 1/3 IP) notched his first career save last Sunday at Texas with a scoreless ninth inning.  Meanwhile, sophomore Austin Yount (3.00 ERA in 6 IP) fired five shutout innings of long relief on Tuesday.

Kansas at Stanford
FRIDAY: 5:00 P.M.
SUNDAY: 11:00 A.M.

The Cardinal will remain at home next weekend when they welcome the California Golden Bears to Sunken Diamond for a three-game, non-conference series.  The series will begin on Friday, March 2nd.

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