LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Gritty, tough and relentless; interchangeable words that describes a Kansas baseball team that refused to go down without a fight Sunday afternoon in NCAA postseason play.
Although the unthinkable didn’t happen, the Jayhawks (35-26) gave Kentucky a run for its money clawing their way back from an 8-0 deficit to pull within two runs of the Wildcats (37-24) at Jim Patterson Stadium.
“When we got down early in the game, it was too early in the game to give up,” senior catcher Ka’iana Eldredge said. “We were down seven runs in the fourth, with so much game left to be played. As you saw, we made a run at the end and put ourselves in a position to win the game late. Fortunately for Kentucky, they were able to put up two more runs than us and that won the ball game.”
Eldredge made sure to do his part to help the Jayhawks attempt an 8-0 comeback, mashing one over the wall in left field on his final collegiate at bat for the second home run of his career.
“So many things go through your head when you walk up to the plate late in a ball game and you’re down,” Eldredge said. “I remember thinking the same thing in high school; this could possibly be my last at bat. You just have to go up there and have fun with it. I didn’t think too much and I got a good pitch to hit and put a good swing on it. It was great that it went out of the ballpark so I can tell my kids my last collegiate at bat was a home run.”
The round tripper came two innings after Kansas rallied to put up a five-spot in the sixth with a little help from five-consecutive base hits. Kansas opened the frame with four-straight singles , before sophomore first baseman Jacob Boylan roped a two-run double down the line in left field, all with no outs. A sacrifice fly and an RBI ground out later, KU had cut that 8-0 deficit down to just three runs, 8-5.
Had the Jayhawks pitchers been a bit more effective, five runs may have been the difference in the ballgame. However, the staff combined to give up eight runs off 11 hits including five runs and five hits for right-handed starter Robert Kahana (4-7).
“I made the comment yesterday that (Robert) Kahana didn’t get to pitch in the Big 12 Tournament,” Kansas head coach Ritch Price said. “It has been almost two weeks since he has been on the mound. We scrimmaged ourselves before we left and he was actually pretty good. I was concerned – if he got off to a good start I think you would have seen a completely different guy. Unfortunately for us, his command wasn’t very good and he was behind in the count. Kentucky can really hit the fastball.”
Price gives credit to Kentucky starter freshman Zack Brown (1-1), for holding the Jayhawks scoreless through five frames.
“You look at the numbers of hits per innings pitched and you look at his opponent batting average at .360 – we liked our chances,” Price said. “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. He commanded his fastball well and showed a good breaking ball.”
Brown kept KU off the board until the sixth inning when Kansas put up the five-spot. KU didn’t score again until the eighth when the dinger by Eldredge cut the lead to two runs, 8-6, and allowed for the Jayhawks to take one final stab at completing the comeback in the ninth inning.
Kansas managed to get the tying run to the plate after a one-out walk by sophomore second baseman Colby Wright, but two quick outs followed to end the game and season for the Jayhawks.
Although the comeback didn’t quite happen like the movies portray, Eldredge hopes the team can use the momentum left by the senior class and continue the growth of the KU program.
“For the seniors, this was our first time in the NCAA Tournament,” Eldredge said. “It has been cool to be here and an awesome experience. We told the younger guys it’s all a learning experience. They know what to do and how hard to play going forward, and coach Price is going to have a lot more NCAA tournament appearances if the young kids continue to work hard and have the passion for the game.”