KU Baseball Takes Series at #2 LSU. Shorthanded Hawks Rise to the Challenge.

Kansas overcame injuries and playing on the road against the #2 team in the nation to win its weekend series over LSU two games to one. The losses were the first for LSU this season and dropped the Tigers to 13-2, the Jayhawks improved to 11-4 on the season and are all but guaranteed a spot in next week’s national rankings.

On Friday KU’s struggling offense exploded to beat LSU 11-9. The Jayhawks built an early 8-1 lead and then withstood the home team’s rally. T.J. Walz (3-1) went 6.2 innings for the win, but the pitching star of the game was Brett Bochy. Bochy extinguished the LSU rally and closed out the game with 2.1 innings of hitless relief for his second save. LSU tied up the series on Saturday with a 4-2 win. Cameron Selik was scheduled to start the Saturday game but a sore shoulder prevented him from taking the mound. Brett Bollman responded to being pushed forward in the rotation by delivering  6.2 effective innings, but the Hawk offense could not support his gutty effort. Selik took the mound on Sunday and, after overcoming early control problems, hit a groove that took him into the seventh inning. Travis Blankenship and Brett Bochy combined to pitch the final three innings to preserve an 8-4 win.

 

KU had to play the series without several key players. Jake Marasco was unable to travel with the team due to a family emergency, and clean-up hitter Jimmy Waters was unable to play the second two games after sustaining an injury in Friday’s contest. Marasco, Waters and All-American Third baseman Tony Thompson are all expected back in the KU lineup for next weekend’s series at St. Louis.

 

KU Baseball’s spring break road trip next takes the Jayhawks to Tulane were they will play games on Tuesday (6PM) and Wednesday (1PM). Obviously the LSU series was a huge win for the Hawks. LSU is certainly one of the better teams Kansas will face this year. Winning on the road will give the young Jayhawk rooster a ton of confidence as they move into Big-12 play in a couple of weeks.

 

After the break, some analysis of the first month of the 2010 baseball season. Why not give it a click and get excited about what is shaping up to be a special season for the Hardball Hawks.

A few storylines have emerged during the first month of baseball action. I wish I could address them all in a bit more depth. Lacking time to do so, let me at least give some of them a short treatment in this article.

 

The biggest theme of the season so far has been the club playing through injuries. Pre-season All-American third baseman Tony Thompson cracked his kneecap during batting practice just before the season got underway and is not expected to return to action until this weekend’s series in St. Louis. Tony is not only the team’s clean-up batter (he became the Big-12’s first triple crown winner last year) he is also an excellent defensive player at the most difficult position in college baseball. While some people were surprised to see Coach Price move Jimmy Waters into the clean-up slot to start the season, I found the vote of confidence to be a very optimistic development. Waters was a big recruit when he arrived in Lawrence two years ago but struggled (partially due to nagging injuries) through his first two seasons, only hitting .227/.335/.326. When I saw Price putting him in the #4 slot I thought Waters must have finally hit his stride this off season. I was right. Waters abused opposing pitching during the first 13 games, hitting .357/.534/.667, while leading the team with three homeruns and 19 RBIs in only 55 plate appearances. Time to take us back to the original theme – injury. Waters missed the last two games at LSU. Hopefully he will be back in the lineup quickly and pick up where he left off. Chris Manship, who opened the season as the team’s back up catcher, hit clean-up the day after Waters’ injury. So depleted was the KU line-up that the nine players who started that game had a grand total of 21 career homeruns between them.

 

The pitching staff has had to work around injuries even more than have the position players. Lee Ridenhour was expected to be a fixture in the rotation in 2010 after going 6-3 with a 4.65 ERA as a true freshman last season. It was just announced this week that Ridenhour will likely miss the entire season due to a pre-season ankle surgery. Injuries do not only affect the team in terms of who can and who cannot play on a given day. Players coming back from surgeries and injuries have to work themselves back up to full effectiveness. Three pitchers which Kansas has had to rely on heavily during this first month really should be considered men in rehab. Wally Marciel (Jr) is coming back after missing 14 months with Tommy John surgery, and Thomas Taylor (RS-Fr) and Jordan Jakubov (RS-So) both made their KU debuts after missing all of last season to injury. Add into this Cameron Selik’s sore shoulder, which almost prevented him from pitching at  LSU, and you recognize that the pitching seen so far is not close to what Kansas fans might see before the season is over.

 

This storyline ends on a very positive note. Tony Thompson is expected back in the lineup shortly. I gather that neither Waters’ and Selik’s injuries seem serious. Marciel, Taylor and Jakubov have all pitched effectively and continued improvement is an expectation for all three. Sans Ridenhour, the KU roster will be at full strength by April. Lacking future injuries, this team will be peaking during the latter half of the Big-12 season and tournament play. Keeping the above injuries in mind, the team’s performance to date is more encouraging than disappointing from my perspective.

 

Another early season storyline has emerged from first base. Before the season I assumed Zac Elgie would start almost every game at first. Elgie and Ridenhour were the team’s prize recruits last season, both turning down professional offers to play for Ritch Price. Elgie started slow as a freshman, but caught fire in the second half of the season and ended his first campaign with an impressive .305/.364/.448 line, including 3 homeruns and 27 RBIs in 105 at-bats. In his pre-season preview Aman Reaka wrote, "I look for Elgie to really step up and be a star this year (a la Tony Thompson last year). I could easily see him put up 15-20 homeruns, with a .320 average and maybe 50 – 60 RBIs." That is exactly what I expected as well. I never expected Brett Lisher, a Free State High School graduate entering his senior year after only getting 30 at-bats all last year, to challenge Elgie for the starting job. But it is what it is. Through the first 15 games Lisher has hit .421/.465/.500, while Elgie is reliving his freshman sluggish start by hitting .105/.186/.132. It is simply not conceivable that Elgie will not get right soon. Scouts love him so much that he was taken in the 12th round as a high school senior in the MLB draft, and he punished very good pitching all through last April and May. That said, it is not at all inconceivable that Lisher just might be this damn good. He has a very controlled swing and a good batting eye. While not shining defensively, he has certainly held his own at first base. In fairness, KU fans were spoiled over the last several years by Preston Land’s excellent defense, so just about anyone is going to look less impressive at this point. First base is going to be an interesting position to keep an eye on during the coming weeks. Zac WILL respond to the challenge and it WILL make him a better player. Lisher is gift. If he keeps hitting anywhere near as well as he has so far Price is going to have to keep him in the line-up. Hell, if Lisher is still hitting this well when Elgie gets his stroke back I’d be fine seeing him start at shortstop! You simply cannot sit a guy with a smokin’ bat.

 

In addition to Lisher, KU is also getting unexpected offensive help from Chris Manship and Jake Marasco. Manship (Soph – C) entered the season as one of three catchers. After going only 1-14 at the plate as a freshman I don’t think anyone saw him making a lot of noise in the batter’s box in 2010. It turns out the dude was a hidden treasure. Manship is hitting .355/.474/.387 so far this season and has been playing almost every game. Considering that he hit over .300 this summer in a wood bat league, maybe his plate work shouldn’t have been such a complete surprise. Jake Marasco (RS-Fr) was well regarded when he arrived on campus, but he failed to impress at the plate during his injury-shortened first campaign. Marasco only went 6-36 last year with one extra-base hit and struck out in 24% of his plate appearance. 2010 has been a different story. After pounding Iowa pitching with seven hits last weekend Jake is hitting .440/.440/.640. Also impressive is that five of his eleven hits have been doubles. I kept hearing how much power Marasco had in his bat, but since I never saw it in game action . . . It is a given in the scouting community that line-drive doubles eventually turn into homeruns provided the batter has the physical make-up to hit for power. Marasco is 6’3 and a solid 210 lbs. Those double are going to start leaving the park soon. Marasco is offensive help on the way, and I expect to see it arrive this season.

 

The last story line I’ll cover in this article comes out of the shortstop position. Last year Coach Price brought in Juco transfer David Narodowski to play short. As Price expected, Narodowski was a "one and done." After impressing scouts with both his bat and range in the field David was taken in the MLB draft and signed a contract. Narodowski was the third consecutive KU shortstop to be drafted and play professional ball, following Ritchie Price and Erik Morrison. Price hit the Juco ranks again to find a replacement and he brought Brandon Macias out of an Arizona community college to the land of wheat. Macias was billed as a plus fielder with, hopefully, a mediocre bat. After a very slow start Macias has started to hit fairly well. I have only seen him play three games at short, so I cannot speak with much confidence to his defensive skills. From what I saw, he reacts well to the ball, so has good range, but his arm seems less well developed. As long as Macias hits as well as I now expect him to, (roughly a singles fueled .300-.325 OBP), his defense will make him a good addition to the team. Price thinks that incoming freshman Kevin Kuntz might be the long-term solution at short. Again, I have only seen Kuntz in very limited action, but his defense seems fine and he at least handles second tier pitching fairly well. These comments may seem like faint praise, but when they are given to a true freshman playing his first month of D-I hardball they can be recognized as a bit more than that.

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