By Blake Schuster
As a freshman and native from Girard, Kan., Tanner Poppe started nine games with a 5.25 ERA. As a sophomore, he improved, making 13 starts with a 3.66 ERA. Currently, as a one Kansas’ more reliable arms, he finds himself in the bullpen as the Jayhawk’s closer — as far from starting as he can get.
The reason behind the switch isn’t hard to figure out.
In 2011, Kansas gave up 46 third inning runs, and 42 eighth inning runs.
With starters getting beat up early, and not enough bullpen arms to last — as well as the graduation of former closer Colton Murray — coach Ritch Price made the call. He chose Poppe as his new closer.
“It’s a perfect scenario for him,” Price said. “He’s the most experienced guy on our pitching staff. With his fastball and cutter, that’s a role where he can be a really dominant guy in the back end of games.”
But the jury is still out on the effects of the experiment.
In 3.1 innings of work this season, Poppe is 0-1 with one save and a 2.70 ERA. While he has only given up two hits, one of them ended KU’s hopes of defeating a ranked squad, losing to Mississippi State last weekend, the 29th ranked team in the country.
Heading into a weekend tournament at the University of Texas – San Antonio, it’s a mistake Poppe will look to correct.
“I’m looking for continued improvement,” Price said. “All three teams have good numbers coming into the tournament that were going to, so I’m looking for the same level of consistency.”
The host team, the Roadrunners (6-3), come storming into their tournament batting .298 and averaging 6.8 runs-per-game through nine contests this season.
Likewise, the Gonzaga Bulldogs put their undefeated record of 7-0 on the line with a .337 team batting average to back it up. The Bulldogs are led by senior third baseman Eric Lane, who has a .471 batting average, three doubles, and eight runs scored.
Against a tournament full of power hitting squads, Price would like to go to his bullpen — and Poppe — as little as possible.
“I’d like to see [starter] Frank Duncan get deeper in the game rather than be leaving in the sixth inning,” Price said, “Same thing with [starter] Thomas Taylor, he’s got to be efficient, and keep his pitch count down. We need our starters giving seven quality innings every time you hand them the ball.”
When those seven quality innings are up, it’s Poppe’s time. He is learning as he goes, but enjoying his new role.
“Let’s face it, you get that final out of the game and you go across that mound and everyone is giving you high fives; that’s a pretty good feeling and a great way to end a baseball game,” Price said. “He wants to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line, and that’s the guy that our team trusts the most.”
-Edited by C.J. Matson