Kansas baseball returns 15 starters for 2013 season
- Feb. 13, 2013
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Coach Ritch Price is optimistic when discussing the off-season development of another young Kansas baseball roster.
At Tuesday’s media day, Price said his team is taking advantage of the experience gained by playing one of the youngest lineups in the Big 12 last season. This season, the Jayhawks return seven starting position players and nine pitchers, on a roster that includes 23 underclassmen.
“Pitching is certainly the strength of our club on paper,” Price said. “In my ten years I’ve been at Kansas, we’ve never returned all three weekend starters. On paper these are four of the most impressive guys we’ve had. At the same time, those guys have to get better too.”
Junior pitcher Frank Duncan leads the rotation this season with sophomore Wes Benjamin, senior Thomas Taylor and senior Tanner Poppe taking on starting duties this season.
“It’s fun to have these guys in the Friday and Saturday spots,“ pitching coach Ryan Graves said. “In my opinion, these guys give us the best chance of getting us deep into the game and not use up our bullpen on Friday and Saturday.”
Duncan earned the opening-game start after going 6-8 with a 3.23 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 2012. Duncan isn’t a power pitcher. He prefers to make his living on the mound by mixing pitches and outsmarting opposing bats.
“Any time you’re put in the position to pitch on Friday nights in the Big 12 you’re going to be facing the best guys in the country,” Duncan said. “I did that last year and felt comfortable in my role. So, it’s just about making sure I’m doing my job to put the team in the best position to win.”
Benjamin returns from a 5-7 freshman campaign in which he maintained a 3.54 ERA with 54 strikeouts.
“He was obviously very mature for a freshman last season,” Graves said. “The biggest thing in his development is creating better spin on his breaking balls. The spin has been the last thing to come it’s more about getting him confident in using those breaking balls.”
Taylor is reaching his potential after a long rehabilitation program following Tommy John surgery undertaken in his senior year of high school. The senior brings velocity, as well as a 4.76 ERA and 68 strikeouts, to the Jayhawk rotation.
“The thing I’m most pleased with Thomas in his development is he’s become a two pitch, three pitch guy.” Price said. “His breaking ball is significantly better. His velocity has peaked now. To see him consistently throwing the fastball and commanding it over 90 mph is exciting.”
Poppe will make the move from the bullpen to the starting lineup to round out the rotation while freshman Robert Kahana assumes closing duties.
Pitching isn’t the only position group returning several starters. The Kansas outfield returns all three starters from last year’s squad in sophomore leftfielder Michael Suiter, junior centerfielder Tucker Tharp and sophomore rightfielder Dakota Smith.
“I’ve coached 35 years and that’s the worst outfield I’ve ever coached defensively,” Price said. “It’s all three of them. It’s not one or the other and I’m not going to sugar coat it for you. Our standard of defense in the outfield was awful last year.”
This year the outfield is focused on taking the pressure off of the pitching staff by not allowing routine plays to slip away in the outfield. After a rocky start last year, the outfield is looking for consistency.
“It just comes down to focus,” Tharp said. “A lot of guys, the game was moving too fast for them last year. This year they’ve been able to slow the game down and make those plays look easy. For us to get out on the field and get this weekend under our belt, it’ll be good to get the ball rolling.”
The Jayhawks waste no time taking on Big 12-level competition facing the Nevada Wolfpack in Mesa, Ariz., over the weekend. The Wolfpack features top-15 major league pitching prospect Bradey Shipley, who is known to hit the upper 90s on the radar gun regularly.
“We’re going to be playing in a major league complex against a guy that’s probably going to be a major league guy next year,” Duncan said. “The biggest thing for me is worrying about what I’m going to do not what he’s doing.”
The Jayhawks start their four-game series against Nevada Friday at 2 p.m. in Mesa, Ariz.