The KU baseball season came to an abrupt end on Sunday. Anything other then a Kansas State sweep of KU would have allowed the Jayhawks to extend their season and travel to Bricktown for the Big-12 tournament. Depressingly, the Hawks were stifled by the Wildcats on Friday and Saturday, and then out slugged by them on Sunday. When Oklahoma salvaged a win vs. Oklahoma State on Sunday afternoon the Sooners climbed over KU on the final day of the season and claimed the final invite to Oklahoma City.
Kansas finishes the year in 9th place in the Big-12 with a final record of 30-27, 9-18 in the conference. This has to be considered a disappointing outcome. Coming into the year I considered Kansas to have a fair chance of earning an NCAA at-large invite (think here 35+ wins) and the over/under on their Big-12 wins to be 12.
Why did things go sour? I believe the main culprit was the starting pitching. Wally Marciel was expected to be at least a conference average weekend starter. Instead his season was shut down after six starts due to injury. There was hope that Andy Marks would rejoin the staff in March and be back up to full strength by May. Instead Andy suffered the expected frustrations with recovery and by April it had been decided it would be in his best interest to keep him off the mound all year. Nick Czyz gave the team innings and several good starts, but as his final numbers make clear he was not performing at the same level as most of his Friday evening conference opponents. After fast starts Sam Freeman, Shaeffer Hall, Andres Esquibel and T.J. Walz ended the year hovering at some point in that grey zone between solid and suspect. Outside of two brief stretch (first half of March and the middle part of April) the starting pitching staff seemed more patchwork than a strength.
When a team's starting pitching staff is unsettled the struggles inevitably trickle down into the bullpen. I had expected the bullpen to be one of the key team strengths in 2008 but this also did not pan out as hoped. Esquibel gave the team excellent middle relief work throughout the first six weeks of the season but after he was moved into the starting rotation in April Kansas never really established a good cadre of bridge men to get the team from the starter to Paul Smyth. Hiarali Garcia had an excellent year, but Brett Bollman, Brett Bochy and Thomas Marcin inconsistency provided more anxiety than comfort.
Offensively the team was as solid as I had expected them to be. Ryne Price and John Allman were simply excellent. Buck Afenir, Erik Morrison, Nick Faunce and Casey Larson all hit a bit better than I expected. Robby Price, Tony Thompson and Jimmy Waters finished strong. Only Preston Land came in under his projections. This all resulted in a team that scored 6.7 runs per game.
Early the team's defense was below standard and this certainly cost them a win or two. Tony Thompson and Buck Afenir started the year as defensive liabilities however, by April, this simply was no longer the case, and that gives fans a lot of reason for hope.
The team had a lot of fight, they played excellent baseball at times, they had three winning streaks of five or more games, but in the end I have to think that the lack of stability and consistency out of the starting rotation hobbled the team enough that one final cold weekend was enough to knock them out of the top-8 in the conference. A 9th place finish defines the 2008 ride as marked equally by weeks of optimism and dejection - a ride that finally brought us to a less than satisfactory destination.
Now that I am snapping out of my baseball depression I'll post a few more stories in the coming days about team awards and honors. I'll take a look at how the players finished statistically. And, in a few weeks there will be draft coverage. After the draft, I guess it is time to start looking forward to what 2009 will bring us.