Gritty Jayhawks Handle Weather, Wildcats

LOUISVILLE—The game was supposed to start at 2:05 p.m. After a little rain squall, the start time was pushed back to 2:25.

It ended at 9 p.m. Three weather delays totaled three hours, 21 minutes, but Kansas never lost its focus. The Jayhawks played a very crisp offensive game, perfectly executing coach Ritch Price's West Coast offense by placing bunts and hitting situationally, and beat Kentucky 10-6 in the Louisville Regional opener.

"That's obviously one of the most unusual games I've ever been involved in," Price said. "I don't know that I've seen two delays as long as those two were. I was really proud of the toughness and competitiveness our team showed being able to fight through those delays. To execute the short game as well as we did, with two strikes and two outs, it was obviously a pretty good offensive performance."

Michael Suiter

Michael Suiter (Photo by John Williamson)

The Jayhawks put pressure on Kentucky from the outset, taking advantage of a jittery Kyle Cody to score three runs in the first. Cody, who had thrown just 37 innings this year while coming back from injury but threw well last week in the SEC tournament, was wild, and he mishandled two bunts in the frame, throwing one over the head of the first baseman to kickstart KU's rally. The next batter, No. 3-hole hitter Michael Suiter, laid down a perfect safety squeeze to drive in KU’s first run, and a rattled Cody barely got the ball out of his glove in time to get the out at first.

But after two more hits and another error put Kansas up 3-0, the skies abruptly opened with a man on third, and when play resumed just over an hour later, the momentum had shifted.

Kentucky replaced Cody with Andrew Nelson, who stranded the runner at third, and Ka'ai Tom cracked a three-run homer in the bottom of the frame to tie it at 3-3.

But Kansas was not rattled, scoring three more in the top of the second, highlighted by Suiter’s RBI single and senior center fielder Tucker Tharp's two-run single. Kentucky, one of the best offensive teams in the country, fought back to tie it at 6-6 in the fourth—and then the rains came again. This delay lasted nearly two hours, and frustratingly, there was no rain during most of it—just reports of lightning strikes in the area, and radar screens showing more on the way. Kansas took it all in stride.

"We were just listening to some music and talking with each other, just really talking about the season," shortstop Justin Protacio said. "We have great senior leadership on our team, and those three different times when it was time to get back on the field, they stepped up and said, 'Cut the games, it's time to get serious and get back on the field.'"

Kansas came out of the third delay with Drew Morovick on the mound, and he shut out the powerful Wildcats for the next 3 1/3 innings, allowing just one hit. Kentucky came back with Chandler Shepherd, and the Jayhawks got to him for a pair of runs in the seventh—with Tharp's RBI double off the left-field wall providing the big blow. Tharp finished 3-for-5 with three RBIs to lead the KU offense, which tacked on two more in the eighth to put the game away.

"You look at that line score, three hits today and three RBIs, he was a big-time player," Price said of Tharp. "You can make the statement that he was the best player on the field today. Anytime you upset a team like Kentucky, you need somebody to have a special game for you. And for us that was Tucker Tharp."

Price was genuinely impressed with Kentucky's offensive firepower, led by national home run leader A.J. Reed. The Jayhawks don't have that kind of star power, but Tharp (.305/.408/.467, 6 HR, 10 SB) is a very good player who does a lot of things well, and he certainly looked like a star on Friday. And the Jayhawks got big contributions from a pair of unlikely heroes. Joven Afenir entered the game after cleanup man Dakota Smith injured his knee in the first (Price said he fears Smith tore a ligament in his knee). Afenir finished 3-for-4 and scored the go-ahead run in the seventh.

And 5-foot-8 sophomore third baseman Tommy Mirabelli, who entered the game hitting .160 in 75 at-bats this year, finished 2-for-3, tripling and scoring an insurance run in the eighth.

"He had as bad a year as anybody, but he continued to work hard," Price said of Mirabelli, the son of Indians executive John Mirabelli. "He can really run, handle the bat, a quick bat for a little tiny guy. He's going to be a real good baseball player, and I was proud of him.

"I think the great thing about our guys is we don't have any superstars on our team. We've had some on the past. We have five players playing in the big leagues right now. But we have to compete and grind and execute in order to be good."

That's just what the Jayhawks did.