By: Blake Schuster
The batters are swinging better than last season, player positions have been switched, and the nine-game losing streak that the club ended its 2011 campaign on is old news.
So while many in the Big 12 have written off the Jayhawks — with Kansas recently being ranked 9th out of 9 in the Big 12 coaches poll — they feel as though they’ve been undervalued. Now they’re out to prove it.
“I think we have a chance to be really good this season,” senior third baseman Zac Elgie said. “Especially with the switch between Jake (Marasco) and I (switching from first base to third). As a team, it makes us better defensively. It closes a lot of gaps in the infield that we have had with throwing errors and things like that. Those are things that can win or lose ballgames.”
The Jayhawks will have their first chance to test out their new defensive scheme Friday at 3:00 p.m. when they take on Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro, Tenn. as they kick off their 2012 season with the Music City Classic.
Taking the mound for the Jayhawks to open the tournament will be sophomore right-hander Frank Duncan.
Duncan posted a 0-3 record with a 3.09 ERA in 24 relief appearances last season and is looking to carry over his success to the starting rotation.
“What made me so effective last year was that my ability to throw strikes,” Duncan said. “That’s one of the things that coach Graves really hammered home. I’ll just use the same pitches and throw strikes to get ahead and make them hit the pitches that I want them to, no new tricks up my sleeve.”
Duncan’s move to the starting rotation is part of an effort by coach Ritch Price to achieve maximum production from his pitching staff.
Last season, the Jayhawks let leads slip away at the end of games, but Price anticipates that this will not be the case this season.
“We are going to open the season with Tanner Poppe, who has been a starter as a freshman and a sophomore in the closer’s role,” Price said. “You could make an argument that our two best arms are at the back end of ballgames, and that is by design.”
Last season the Jayhawks gave up a total of 46 runs in the third inning and 42 in the eighth. The bullpen switch should give the Jayhawk starting rotation pitchers who can stay consistent through the early innings and a strong closer who can finish out the latter.
Looking to prove Price’s new philosophy wrong will be Middle Tennessee’s senior first baseman and outfielder, Justin Guidry and sophomore third baseman Hank LaRue.
Guidry batted .349 last season with 39 runs scored, while LaRue knocked 11 doubles en route to a .306 batting average.
Taking the mound for the Blue Raiders will be Hunter Adkins; a junior who went 2-9 in 14 starts last season with a 5.44 ERA.
The Jayhawks downfall last season was an inability to get the bats going early in the season. Getting on base early is instrumental for the Jayhawks, and with new bats from Easton, Price feels his team now has the right tools to get the job done.
“The bats are better balanced, and the performance has been better in our practice and games,” Price said. “They’ve got them balanced properly now and we’re hitting the ball out of the ballpark in batting practice and in scrimmage games. A year ago, we couldn’t hit the ball to the warning track. It’s been a significant difference.”
-Edited by C.J. Matson