In the small sample-size world of college baseball, preseason rankings can often be pretty hollow and meaningless.
So perhaps Kansas coach Ritch Price wasn’t too distraught in early February, when KU was picked to finish dead last in the nine-team Big 12 race. Still, he had to feel a little down. His Jayhawks were coming off a 34-25 season in 2013. They returned the bulk of their lineup. And in-state rival Kansas State, the defending Big 12 champs, was picked to finish first.
By comparison: Kansas State racked up 56 points in the preseason voting; KU had just 12.
So maybe, deep down, Price and his Jayhawks were thinking of those rankings Sunday, when they finished off a three-game sweep of West Virginia with a 9-8 victory on senior day at Hoglund Ballpark in Lawrence. By the end, Kansas had clinched its ninth consecutive conference victory — its third straight sweep — and will finish no worse than third in the conference standings.
“This is one of the most fun teams I’ve ever coached,” Price said. “We just played game No. 54 and they’re still having fun in that dugout.”
The Jayhawks, who improved to 33-21 overall and 15-9 in the Big 12, trail just Oklahoma State and TCU in the Big 12 standings. And an NCAA postseason bid appears within reach. Kansas’ last trip to an NCAA Regional came in 2009. Kansas State, meanwhile, is pacing to finish ninth after winning the Big 12 title last season.
One day after starting pitcher Robert Kahana threw a six-inning gem in a 5-2 victory, the Jayhawks needed all the offense they could muster to keep the conference win streak alive.
Center field Tucker Tharp and catcher Ka’iana Eldredge each had two hits and three RBIs, and the Jayhawks took control with five runs in the sixth inning. The Kansas bullpen hung on despite allowing one run in the seventh and two runs in the eighth. Stephen Villines recorded his eighth save in the ninth.
“It goes back to having the right mentality in your dugout,” Price said earlier this weekend, after the streak had reached eight straight. “You come out here and compete every day and you grind. That is the one thing about playing Division I baseball.
“When you play 56 times, you have to play through the peaks and the valleys. When you love to play at the end of the season, you have a chance to do something special.”
Before the Jayhawks’ offensive fireworks in the sixth, West Virginia’s Billy Fleming had tied the score at 4-4 on a double in the top of the sixth — becoming just the second Big 12 player this season to hit for the cycle.
After finishing off their conference slate with nine straight wins, the Jayhawks will now head to Michigan for a short, two-game series this weekend before heading to Oklahoma City for the Big 12 championship on May 21.
“I think the last three weeks we have been playing really well,” junior right fielder Dakota Smith said. “We have been hitting the ball well and throwing the ball well. I think we have just been getting hotter and hotter and it has carried over.”