By Blake Schuster
16 innings later, the bleeding still hasn’t stopped. What started as a mid-week hiccup — a 7-3 loss to Creighton on April 3rd — snowballed into a five-game losing streak for the Jayhawks, where Kansas have been outscored 29-12.
It could have stopped in Stillwater, Okla. last Friday when the Jayhawks held a 6-4 lead over Oklahoma State — until a three-run ninth inning propelled the Cowboys to victory — and it could have stopped Tuesday night when the Jayhawks held a one-run lead over the Wichita State Shockers, again in the ninth inning before losing 6-4 seven innings later.
With Tanner Poppe on the mound, with two outs, the Shockers were counting on Kevin Hall to tie the game from third — but Poppe was dueling. After walking his first batter, Poppe collected himself to strikeout Don Lambert, and induce a Johnny Coy pop out to right field. Facing the final out of the game, the Jayhawk’s closer took a 2-2 count and placed fastball up in the zone.
Casey Gillaspie stood at the plate and watched the pitch all the way, just getting his bat under it as it flew into the strike zone. The ball went in the air, the defense set up, and Poppe relaxed for a moment as Dakota Smith floated under the ball ready to record the out. But as Smith continued to track the ball, the lights in the outfield cutoff his sight. As quickly as Poppe eased his mind, he forcefully snapped himself back into the game. Gillaspie’s blooper landed a yard away from Smith, and Hall coasted in from third.
“I thought we had it,” Poppe said. “It looked like [Smith] was camped under it and the ball sailed left a little bit. It sucks.”
Had Smith caught the ball, Kansas would have walked away with a much needed win, a rested bullpen, and momentum heading into Wednesday night’s rematch at Wichita State. Instead the Jayhawks ended up burning six pitchers, leaving 16 men on base, and bear the weight of a five-game losing streak. And the latter two correlate.
Tucker Tharpe had a career night gathering four hits en route to tying the Kansas record for most plate appearances in a game . The new leadoff man made it to scoring position three times — including once in the bottom of the ninth inning with no outs — but he only recorded one run scored, and it didn’t come in the ninth.
“It’s one of those things you just don’t have control of,” said Kevin Kuntz, who registered one hit bating behind Tharpe Tuesday night. “Why it happens we don’t know.”
During the current losing streak, the Jayhawks have stranded 37 batters, more than triple the amount of runs they’ve scored during the span.
“It goes back to having some people in the middle of that line-up are run producers,” Ritch Price said. We haven’t gotten somebody red-hot that’s been able to carry the club.”
Despite having three hitters batting over .300 in the lineup — Alex DeLeon, James Stanfield and Chris Manship — Kansas has the worst team batting average in the Big 12 [.254]. And while the mantra at the beginning of the season was on eliminating the fastball from the opponent’s arsenal, rarely are the Jayhawks doing so, the 12-20 record reflects it.
What loss number 20 will reflect is a 16 inning loss at home in a game that ended on a double to left centerfield, but was decided on a two-out blooper that got lost in the lights. And though Smith’s teammates commend him for “Busting his ass” he along with the rest of the Jayhawks have the results to face — and the next games won’t be getting easier.
Scheduled starter Drew Morovick is dealing with flu-like symptoms and may only be able to throw for a few innings in Wichita, and with a bullpen short on rest — and #2 Texas A&M coming to Lawrence this weekend — Price will be limited with his available pitchers, requiring him to do some reworking of tonight’s game plan.
“We’ll sit down with coach Graves, who I thought did a masterful job tonight,” Price said of his pitching coach. “It won’t be easy tomorrow, but we’ve got to show up and find a way to get it done.”