LOUISVILLE—Kansas coach Ritch Price admitted he liked his team's chances heading into Sunday's elimination game against Kentucky when he looked at UK starting pitcher Zack Brown's numbers. The freshman righty entered the day 0-1, 5.32 in 24 innings, and opponents were hitting .360 against him. Kansas, meanwhile, went to a weekend starter in Robert Kahana, who has the best stuff on its staff (though not the finest command).
But the Wildcats jumped on Kahana for three runs in the first two innings, then tacked on four more in the fourth to take a commanding lead. And Brown battled his way through five innings to help take some strain off Kentucky's thin pitching staff. The Jayhawks rallied for five runs in the sixth, but the Wildcats held on to win 8-6, setting up a showdown against rival Louisville for the regional championship.
"I think the thing was we got buried early, and I think it took us a while mentally to recover from that after they hit us in the mouth in the first and second inning," Price said. "But (Brown) commanded his fastball good and he showed a good breaking ball. I'm actually surprised that he could have a .360 opponent batting average as good as his breaking ball was. But I think the young man took a big step forward for them."
Brown kept Kansas scoreless through five innings by inducing groundball outs with his lively two-seamer and effectively mixing in his big-breaking downer curve. The Jayhawks chased him in the fourth (he wound up with four earned runs on his ledger in five-plus innings), but he did what Kentucky needed him to do. Brown has made gradual progress over the course of his spring, and has started to see more meaningful innings down the stretch, but he saved his best for when Kentucky's season was on the line.
"In his first bullpen in September, he threw 38 pitches. He had eight strikes and 30 balls, and his heart rate sped up to about 350 beats per minute," Henderson said, before wryly adding, "That's a joke. He was excited, so you have to get him to slow down a little bit. His progress is substantial; he's going to be really good."
Kansas also has a chance to be pretty good again next year, but it will sorely miss seniors Tucker Tharp, Kai'iana Eldredge, Frank Tucker and Jordan Piche'. But Price is excited about his young core, with 10 promising freshmen who now have postseason experience under their belts—something the seniors did not get until this weekend.
"I think for the seniors, this is our first time here in the NCAA tournament," Eldredge said. "It's been cool to be here, been an awesome experience. But as we said to the younger guys, now it's all a learning experience. They know what they need to do, how hard they need to play going forward. Coach Price is going to have a lot more NCAA tournament experiences if the young kids continue to work hard."