LAWRENCE, Kan. – They have made their last go-around at KU count all season, but senior captains Tucker Tharp and Ka’iana Eldredge made it count one more time as the duo combined for six two-out RBIs on Senior Day to lead the Kansas baseball team to the series sweep of West Virginia, 9-8, Sunday afternoon at Hoglund Ballpark.
The Jayhawks (33-21, 15-9 Big 12) swept the Mountaineers (27-20, 9-11 Big 12) Sunday to pick up their ninth-straight Big 12 victory and send seniors Frank Duncan, Eldredge, Tom Hougland, Jordan Piche’ and Tharp out in style. The victory helped KU pick up its third-consecutive conference series sweep to close out league play, as Kansas swept both Baylor and then-No. 19 Texas Tech leading up to the home finale.
“To go 9-0 our last Big 12 stretch after finishing conference play 0-9 two years ago, is a huge step forward for our club,” Eldredge said. “I’m so blessed to be a part of this team who has worked so hard throughout the course of the year.”
Tharp and Eldredge, two of the hardest workers who lead by example, have clutched up numerous times throughout the course of the season, but how fitting for the duo to close out their careers at the Hog with a Sunday sweep on Senior Day.
“The main thing is to have fun,” Eldredge said. “If you are having a good time out on the yard, the wins will take care of themselves.”
It would be true to say that Tharp and Eldredge had fun in their last game at Hoglund Ballpark as the tandem combined for four hits and six two-out RBIs to help starter and fellow senior Duncan out on the mound.
“The middle of our lineup played like they were impact players all weekend,” head coach Ritch Price said. “That’s obviously one of the best hitting teams in our league, if not the best, and I can’t remember the last time we gave up 18 hits and won the ballgame.”
Duncan didn’t have his best stuff, but battled through five and one-third innings, giving up five runs off 13 hits in the no decision. Junior righty Drew Morovick (8-3) came on in relief and was credited with the win. Freshman closer Stephen Villines came on in the ninth to shut the door and pick up his eighth save of the season.
For a team that has battled from behind countless times all year, down 5-4 in the sixth inning didn’t faze them as the Jayhawks put up a five-spot, which proved to be the difference maker.
“When you take a lot of pressure off yourself and all the pressure is off your team, you don’t have to try so hard to get that one run back just like that,” Eldredge said. “If they are playing well, you need to continue to play well and have fun, and let the wins take care of themselves.”
Winning is all this team has been doing the last three weeks of the season, as Kansas has put up a “W” in 10 of its last 11 games, including nine straight in the league to move into third place in the Big 12 standings, the highest finish in the Price era.
“This is one of the most fun teams I have ever coached,” Price said. “It’s fun to be around them every day. We just played game 54 and they are still having fun in the dugout. The energy and excitement they bring each day is the same as if we were starting day one.”
Joining Tharp and Eldredge with multiple-hit efforts were junior shortstop Justin Protacio (2-for-5) and junior left fielder Michael Suiter (2-for-4). In addition, junior right fielder Dakota Smith was the only other Jayhawk with two or more RBIs, finishing the day with two.
The two clubs traded runs early with Kansas taking a 2-2 tie into the home half of the fifth inning. Sophomore second baseman Colby Wright led off the frame with a walk, before Suiter hit an infield single to short. Then with one out, junior designated hitter Connor McKay walked to load the bases.
With two outs and bases loaded, Eldredge roped one on a line to centerfield to drive in two runs and give KU the lead, 4-2.
WVU answered right back with three runs in the top half of the sixth. A leadoff single and a double down the left field line scored the first run of the inning, before West Virginia second baseman Billy Fleming doubled to left center to drive in another run and give him the cycle on the day. Another infield single tacked on the final run and gave WVU the 5-4 advantage.
Tharp followed the example set by Eldredge in the fifth inning and smoked one through the right side in the sixth with bases loaded for two RBIs and reclaim the lead for the Jayhawks. KU went on to score five in that inning to take a 9-5 lead into the seventh.
The Mountaineers tacked on a run in the seventh and added two more in the eighth, forcing Price to make a call to the bullpen in bring in Villines to close it out in the ninth for his eighth save of the season, as KU went on to win, 9-8.
Kansas is back in action Saturday, May 17, as the squad travels to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to take on the Wolverines in a two-game set.