LAWRENCE, Kan. – Having his hands involved in four of the Jayhawks five runs on the day, junior right fielder Dakota Smith clutched up with three two-out RBIs to pace the Kansas baseball team to a series win over West Virginia, 5-2, Saturday afternoon at Hoglund Ballpark.
KU (32-21, 14-9) has won eight-straight Big 12 Conference games and nine of its last 10 overall, after taking down the Mountaineers (27-19, 9-10) for the second-straight day.
“It goes back to having the right mentality in your dugout,” head coach Ritch Price said. “You come out here and compete every day and you grind. That is the one thing about playing Division I baseball. When you play 56 times, you have to play through the peaks and the valleys. When you love to play at the end of the season, you have a chance to do something special.”
Smith’s performance at the plate with two two-out clutch hits certainly seems like he and the rest of the Jayhawks still love playing this late in the season.
“I think the last three weeks we have been playing really well,” Smith said. “We have been hitting the ball well and throwing the ball well. I think we have just been getting hotter and hotter and it has carried over to today. It has been a lot of fun.”
The three runs Smith drove in was all that right-handed hurler Robert Kahana (4-5) needed as he tossed six and one-third innings for the win. After hitting three batters in the first inning and a third, the junior settled in and battled, allowing two runs off six hits in his 96-pitch effort.
“I felt good and went out there and threw a lot more strikes than I did last week,” Kahana said. “With the run support my offense gave me, it made it a lot easier for me to go out there and fill up the zone and throw up zeroes (on the scoreboard).”
Of those 96 pitches, Kahana threw 66 for strikes, without surrendering a walk. The last time he had a start where he didn’t walk a batter was at then-No. 10 Texas (March 15) where he tossed a complete game.
“I think we have reached that point in our season where we are peaking at the right time,” Price said. “It seems like we have played really good baseball the last four weeks and it all starts with good starting pitching. He (Kahana) was a little shaky with his command early in the game, but we turned three double plays behind him. I thought that set the tone and allowed him to settle in.”
Aside from the three hits Smith put up on the board, two other Jayhawks boasted multiple-hit efforts. Sophomore second baseman Colby Wright finished the day 2-for-5, while junior left fielder Michael Suiter (3-for-5) had three hits and two runs scored.
KU got on the board early in the second inning after Smith singled to start off the frame. Junior designated hitter Connor McKay drew the walk, before the duo advanced up a base by way of a sacrifice bunt by senior centerfielder Tucker Tharp. Senior catcher Ka’iana Eldredge then roped one to short for the RBI ground out to give Kansas the early lead, 1-0.
The Jayhawks added two more in the third, thanks to one of Smith’s two clutch hits on the day. Junior shortstop Justin Protacio drew the one-out walk before Suiter singled through the hole at second to bring up Smith. With a 1-0 hitters count, Smith smoked one down the left field line, scoring the tandem on base and increasing the KU lead, 3-0.
WVU scored its first run in the fourth inning, after a lead off double by second baseman Billy Fleming. He advanced to third on the single by first baseman Ryan McBroom, before scoring on the five, four, three double play, 3-1 KU.
Kansas got a run back in the fifth, before the two teams traded runs in the seventh, forcing the Jayhawks to make a move to the bullpen to bring in junior righty Drew Morovick to close out the seventh and the eighth, setting the stage for closer Stephen Villines.
Villines faced four batters in the ninth and shut the door on the Mountaineers to pick up his seventh save on the season and set the table for another weekend series sweep.
Kansas and West Virginia close out the series Sunday, as the Jayhawks host senior day at the Hog. Senior right-hander Frank Duncan will get the nod and KU will wear its Sunday reds as the squad goes for its third-straight conference and weekend series sweep.
“I want another really good performance,” Price said. “That is a really good baseball team in that dugout. They have an outstanding left-hander from Kansas throwing tomorrow and our best guy is throwing tomorrow on senior day. We just need to continue the momentum and play the way we have the last two days.”
In lieu of the Mountaineers travel schedule, first pitch for Sunday’s contest has been moved up one hour to 12 p.m. Fans can watch the game live on ESPN3 or listen to it on the airwaves on KLWN 1320 or on the web on Jayhawk Digital Passport through KUAthletics.com/Showcase.