Kansas baseball team overcomes loss of top starter, on verge of NCAA berth

05/20/2014 3:06 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

First came the pain, a little dose of tightness in the elbow of Kansas ace Wes Benjamin. Then came the dread, heavy and ominous. As Benjamin walked slowly off the mound on a Friday night in March, the Jayhawks’ baseball season was teetering on the brink of relevancy.

Who could argue? In early February, the Kansas baseball program was picked to finish dead last in the Big 12. A brutal winter had done them few favors, limiting opportunities to train outside. Then came the night of March 28, when Benjamin, a 6-foot-1 left-hander, left the mound during the third inning of a home game against Oklahoma.

His elbow was ailing. His season was over. Nearly two weeks later, Benjamin would undergo a procedure to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, commonly known as Tommy John surgery.

College baseball teams, of course, are not supposed to improve after losing a No. 1 starter to a season-ending arm injury. Especially a team picked to finish last in its conference. But Kansas has spiked all that conventional wisdom, entering this week’s Big 12 tournament on the verge of its first NCAA regional appearance since 2009.

“When you lose an impact guy like Wes Benjamin, it’s almost impossible to do what we have done,” KU coach Ritch Price said earlier this month. “If that was anyone else in our league — you have no idea how it destroys your team.”

For a Kansas team that was offered little respect in the preseason, it just offered another reason to band together. The Jayhawks, ranked No. 21 in the latest Baseball America poll, finished the Big 12 season with nine straight victories, including three straight sweeps. The torrid stretch helped them claim third place in the Big 12 regular season, the program’s best finish in Big 12 history.

The third-seeded Jayhawks, 34-22, will now open the Big 12 tournament against No. 6 seed West Virginia at 9 a.m. today at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City.

The Jayhawks and Mountaineers are also paired with No. 2 seed TCU and No. 7 seed Baylor in a four-team pod. The four teams will square off in a double-elimination setup, with the winner advancing to the Big 12 tournament championship game on Sunday.

“We just have to keep playing well,” said junior outfielder Dakota Smith, a graduate of Lansing. “Hopefully it just keeps carrying over like it has been doing the past couple of weeks.”

For Kansas, the formula for success has been familiar: While the loss of Benjamin left a hole in the rotation, the Jayhawks still have managed to win games with solid run prevention and an emerging offense. Kansas allowed just 3.1 runs per game during its nine-game Big 12 winning streak, and senior right-hander Frank Duncan has turned into a reliable anchor in the rotation.

Duncan, a native of San Francisco, was selected first-team all-Big 12 on Tuesday after finishing the regular season with a 6-2 record and 2.28 ERA in 14 starts.

“He was second-team all-Big 12 as a sophomore and preseason all-Big 12 last year and then had a disappointing junior year,” Price said of Duncan. “It was great to see him bounce back and have a great senior year and finish his career on a huge positive note.”

The Jayhawks’ position players were also well represented on the Big 12 second team. Junior left fielder Michael Suiter earned second-team honors after batting .333 with a .425 on-base percentage, while senior catcher Ka’iana Eldredge, junior right fielder Connor McKay and sophomore second baseman Colby Wright also earned second-team honors.

Now Kansas will attempt to translate the late-season run into postseason success. In his 12th season at Kansas, Price has led the Jayhawks to two NCAA tournament appearances and a Big 12 tourney title in 2006. But nobody on the roster was around for the last NCAA regional appearance in 2009, and the Jayhawks would like to end the drought.

“Let’s keep grinding and competing and getting better,” Price said. “We are playing our best baseball of the season right now. Let’s not go backward; let’s keep moving forward.”

To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to rdodd@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/rustindodd.

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