The main themes coming out of KU Baseball’s media day on Thursday were that the 2009 team is young but full of raw talent; this year’s schedule is among the toughest in the nation; and, the roster is still being sorted out through player competition at several key positions. I believe Coach Price was preparing fans and the media for uneven play during February and March sweetened with hopes of a late season surge in conference play as the new players adjust to NCAA speed and find their roles.
The season gets underway Friday, February 20th. The Hawks skipped their annual trip to Hawaii this season to take part in the Service Academy Classic in Tennessee. KU opens the season with a double-header on Friday, Air Force at 1PM followed by Memphis at 4PM. Single games vs. Bradley will be played on Saturday (1PM) and Sunday (10AM). Four games on the road in one weekend is a tough way to open the season, however all three opponents are very beatable and KU can realistically shoot to come home with at least three wins under its belt. Air Force finished last year with a 15-32 NCAA record and an RPI of 270 (out of 296 NCAA D-I teams). Memphis may be the toughest opponent. The Tigers are coming off a 17-38 season but play in the very competitive C-USA. They ended 2008 with a 176 ranking in the RPI. Bradley, the first of three MVC opponents the Hawks will face in 2009, is coming off a 25-28 season (#200 in the RPI.)
During his press conference Price said the team had been able to practice outside throughout the spring so hopefully they will be loose and ready for live action. Last year KU dropped three of five games at Hawaii-Hilo to open the season. One explanation offered for this horrible start was that these games were the players’ first opportunity to get outside in the sun and they still had not shaken off the winter rust. I don’t want to set my hopes too high. A 3-1 weekend would feel about right.
Tom Hedrick and Mike Cummings will broadcast the games on the web - log into kuathletics.com to pick up the feed. Tom has a low key way of calling the game. He reminds you how nice it is sometimes to do nothing but sit and listen and let life slow down.
I have an interview set up with Coach Price on Monday so will hold off most comments on individual players until next week. At this time the starting line-up looks to be:
Catcher – Buck Afenir backed up by Juco transfer Joe Lincoln.
First Base – Preston Land is being pushed by Zac Elgie.
Second Base – Robby Price.
Third Base – Tony Thompson.
Shortstop – David Narodowski, a Juco transfer, will start.
Left Field – Jimmy Waters backed by Jake Marasco.
Center Field – Nick Faunce, who will also hit lead-off, backed up by Jason Brunansky.
Right Field – Brian Heere backed up by Casey Lytle.
DH - It looks like Elgie and Waters will split most of the time here.
The starting pitchers this weekend will by Shaeffer Hall, T.J. Walz, Lee Ridenhour and Cameron Selik. Paul Smyth will close. Wally Marciel will not pitch sooner than April. Andy Marks is not ready for game action. Hopefully he will be able to work out of the bullpen in the coming weeks. Marciel and Marks are both damn good when they are healthy so the pitching staff has already had more than it's share of bad luck before the season even is underway.
Partially balancing out the above injuries Price twice remarked on how impressed he is with the young arms on the pitching staff. He said that when he arrived in Lawrence the average velocity of the staff was 84 mph. It is up to 90 this year. Price expects the bullpen to be more solid than it was last year. He said loosing their three best players to the pros after last season the pitching would need to step up. “We must pitch better this year. We will not score the same number of runs as we did last year.”
One other note, prior to the press conference Price led the media on a tour of the new clubhouse. I believe the new facility cost about $400,000. I asked him if he had been able to fully pay for it through donations. Price said “100%” of the funding came through alumni donors. The clubhouse has a large locker room and lounge area, a study room, an equipment room and an exercise/rehab room. The second floor of the clubhouse is taken up by an open meeting space (where the press conference was held) which opens onto a good sized porch overlooking short right field. The porch reduced Hoglund’s capacity by a few hundred bench seats and will apparently be rented out during games. No beer sales. I asked.
The LJ World Coverage includes a photo gallary of the new clubhouse.