Kansas Baseball Head Coach Ritch Price was nice enough to sit down with me today for an interview. When I arrived at Price’s office his desk was covered in newspaper clippings. “Look at this. All these problems in baseball. You have players in the Dominican Republic lying about their age and their agents skimming money off their signing bonuses. Here you have Miguel Tejada lying to congress and here is a story about Alex Rodriguez and drug use. All these stories in one newspaper.” I realized later that what Coach Price and I were talking about was one of the main reasons I am so drawn to college baseball. I love baseball. College baseball remains a world in which love of the sport is still the daily headline instead of drug tests and contract disputes.
When we talked in January you and I agreed that a realistic goal for the 2009 team was 30 wins and finishing in the top eight of the Big-12 conference. After half a season are your goals altered?
No doubt the team has exceeded our expectations so far. Even without [injured pitchers Wally] Marciel and [Andy] Marks they are exceeding those expectations. It is a young team that is in the middle of playing four straight weekend series against top-25 teams. Last weekend we had a chance to win [at Texas A&M] both on Saturday and Sunday and for me losing those games was personally devastating.
Like I said it is a young team and I think it is too early to predict where Kansas falls in the Big-12. I am still concerned about our team’s offense. And I still have some young guys who are not playing well. We are growing but offensive consistency is still not there.
How do you see the outfield shaping up for the second half of the season?
I am really pleased with Brian Heere. He has been the most consistent player so far. [Nick] Faunce has gotten off to an inconsistent start, both offensively and defensively. [Jason] Brunansky has been good on defense but has not done well at the plate in Big-12 games.
I asked about Jake Marasco’s injury and Coach Price confirmed he broke his foot in Tuesday’s game with Northern Colorado and this would end his season. He should be ready for practice in the fall.
Do you anticipate any role changes on the pitching staff in the second half of the season?
I am really pleased with the development of Colton Murray. He has the best slider on the team and I am thrilled with his development. [Brett] Bochy’s development is progressing very nicely as well. [Paul] Smyth has had a tough run. He is such a good competitor but he has gone through a really tough stretch lately. If he wasn’t so well put together mentally we would have more concerns about him. All reporters ask about Smyth’s status on the team and I tell them there are no plans for change there. He has been successful for us in [the closer] role in the past, and during the Texas series, and I think it is best for the team to stick with him.
In several of his starts T.J. Walz seems almost untouchable through the first three or four innings and then he hits a wall. Do you have any insight as to why this might be happening?
You are going to laugh when you hear this answer. I honestly believe it is related to physical strength. T.J. had an illness his freshman year and at one point he was down to 138 pounds. He is back up to 180 pounds now but he is still working on his stamina.
I mentioned that T.J. might be best suited for middle relief at this point, but I didn’t really want to see the team make that change. Price agreed. “T.J. is just too good for us to do that right now. During the Texas game none of his fast balls came in at under 90 miles per hour. He touches 94 now. I can’t take him out of the rotation.”
In what areas do you think the team needs to improve the most in the second half of the season if they are to make the NCAA tournament?
I’ll give you three areas.
First off, the two strike hitting needs to improve.
The outfield play needs to improve both offensively and defensively.
And Paul Smyth needs to regain his old form and consistently close out games for us.
Kansas has an open date on their schedule. Oral Roberts owes KU a visit. Is there any chance a game in Lawrence might be added against the Eagles?
No. [Oral Roberts Head Coach] Rob Walton and I coached together this summer on the national team. We became really good friends. He is one of my best friends in the game now. We are like family. We talk on the phone and exchange scouting reports. We just wouldn’t feel comfortable playing against each other now.
Finally, what three teams do you see as the best in the Big-12?
Texas is solid. Texas A&M is right there with them but they have some struggles with their bullpen. That [Texas A&M starting pitcher Brooks] Raley kid was amazing on Friday night. Those are the top two.
I also like Oklahoma State with [starting pitchers Andrew] Oliver and [Tyler] Lyons. Baylor is one of the most talented teams in the nation. And Oklahoma is playing very well right now.
As we were wrapping up the interview Price came out and said he really liked the website, “It has very good material and is very professionally done. You guys do a good job over there.” I asked him if he would mind taking part in a weekly “Ask Coach Price” feature at Rock Chalk Talk and he said he would be happy to do so. I’ll post more information about that on Monday.
Rock Chalk Talk thanks Ritch Price for taking the time for this interview. Kansas hosts a key Big-12 series this weekend versus #7 Baylor. First pitch Friday at 6PM with games Saturday (2PM) and Sunday (1PM). The weather looks promising for the first two games. If it is humanly possible make your way down to Hoglund Park and cheer on the Hawks. Kansas is 17-10 on the year and 3-3 in the Big-12. Baylor is 18-7 and 5-4. Kansas is undefeated in 14 games at the Hog this year. It all looks good on paper. I am convinced that a series win this weekend will get the Jayhawks into the national rankings for the first time since 2006.