By Blake Schuster
With the season beginning to slip away Kansas coach Ritch Price needed to spark his team. The Jayhawks were 10-12 on March 24th and had just dropped two games to Big 12 rival Baylor. With a lineup that was lagging at the plate Price dropped sophomore Tucker Tharp to the nine hole, looking to put some speed at the back end and hopefully get Tharp some hittable pitches.
But the move did more than just ignite Tharp, junior Kevin Kuntz — who batted leadoff — was starting to get on base more as well. In their next six games, Tharp batted .350 and Kuntz hit .260 right behind him. The progress left Price with only one option, bring Tharp up to leadoff and move Kuntz into the two spot.
While the switch didn’t produce enough for the Jayhawks to avoid a 6-4 loss to Texas A&M on Saturday afternoon it has helped the Jayhawks reach base more often opening up more opportunities for Kansas
Through the first four weeks of the season Tharp was batting .156 and had only one extra base hit in 45 at-bats. Price switched him eight times in the batting order before finally finding success at the back end of the lineup.
“When I moved down to the nine I began seeing a lot more fastballs,” Tharp said.
It began to click for Tharp directly after the drop in the lineup. The Jayhawks have preached fastball-efficiency all year at the plate, and Tharp had a chance to show off just how efficient he could be. The junior had seven hits in his next 20 plate appearances, and Kuntz followed along with six hits in his next 23 at-bats.
“I like batting behind [Tharp],” Kuntz said. “I get to see what the pitcher’s got. My role right now is just to move him 90 feet once he gets on, just barrel the ball up, and hit and run.”
With success mounting between the two, Price capitalized by moving both to the front of the order. The experiment started out rocky. In the first game with the new arrangement against Oklahoma State on April 6th, Tharp went hitless while Kuntz connected for three of them, but they began to synch back up soon after. With the duo combing for a .320 batting average since the change the next step was to see how it fared against a stacked Texas A&M pitching staff.
On Friday night the tandem went 2-8 with Tharp collecting both hits, on Saturday they both collected one while trying to keep the Jayhawks alive in the third inning.
With two outs, Tharp strolled to the plate, battled a full count and knocked a roller back through the middle that was fielded at the lip of the centerfield as Tharp reached first. Two pitches later, Kuntz hit a short line drive to down the third base line. Kansas has struggled getting hits with two outs, now their first line of offense was starting to come up big.
“You’re trying to get to [James] Stanfield and Alex [DeLeon] to gap one and put a crooked number up,” Price said of the new lineup. “[Tharp] is one of the best players we have on the field. He plays higher than his skill set because he’s such a competitor.”
The Jayhawks went down 6-0 to the Aggies after the sixth inning, but battled back in the final three to put some runs on the board. Freshman Dakota Smith knocked a one out double to center field in the bottom of the seventh that scored Jordan Dreiling and Jake Marasco after Dreiling knocked home Zac Elgie from first base with a double of his own. Elgie would score again in the ninth inning on a fielder’s choice but it would be the last run Kansas would get across the plate.
Having Elgie, Dreiling and Marasco start to heat up is good news for Price and the Jayhawks. While Tharp and Kuntz continue to get on base early, the rest of the lineup is starting to follow suit and Price believes the order is a few tweaks away from starting to do some real damage.
“I need some progress from the two freshman: Connor McKay and Dakota Smith,” Price said. “The whole thing is about stringing together quality at-bats.”
The Jayhawks will have another opportunity to get the younger guys active at the plate Sunday afternoon at 1:00, as Kansas will play Texas A&M for the final time before the Aggies move to the SEC.