A year ago at this time – in fact, practically any year – very few, if any, fans would have viewed a baseball series between in-state archrivals Kansas and Kansas State as having championship implications. Football, maybe. Basketball, yes. But never baseball.
That’s clearly not the case this year, as the two schools get set to square off in the Sunflower Showdown series this weekend at Kansas’ Hoglund Ballpark. Heading into this weekend’s Big 12 action, Kansas State (34-15 overall) is tied for first with Oklahoma and West Virginia, all with 11-7 records in the league, and the Jayhawks are a mere half-game back of the leaders.
This sharply contrasts with where the two Sunflower State schools finished up last season. Both won only seven conference games a year ago and were mired in the bottom third of the leage, a far way from title contention.
Kansas (31-18 through all games) ends its Big 12 schedule with the series against K-State. The Jayhawks have won five of their seven series this season against Big 12 opponents. Kansas State still has a huge league series after this weekend as Oklahoma pays the Cats a visit next weekend in a series that just might determine this year’s regular-season league champion.
But the Wildcats cannot afford to look ahead to Oklahoma. Unless the K-Staters take care of business in the Sunflower series with Kansas, it may not matter what happens next weekend. Kansas State comes into the series with Kansas ranked among the nation’s top 30 teams by both the national college baseball writers as well as Collegiate Baseball. Kansas narrowly leads the overall historical series with Kansas State with a 179-167-1 record and owns an 87-66 advantage in games played in Lawrence.
The Kansas pitching staff will have its work cur out for it trying to contain the Kansas State offense. The Wildcats aren’t only leading the Big 12 in hitting this season, but rank second in the country in that important category with a team batting average of .323. The Wildcats are led offensively by sophomore Austin Fisher and junior Ross Kivett, both of whom are hitting over .350 for the season. As if that one-two punch isn’t enough, K-State also has three others among the top 10 hitters in the league (Shane Conlon, Tanner Witt and Jared King), all batting better than .320.
Kansas State has scored 100 more runs than its opponents this season and leads the Big 12 in seven offensive categories, which has helped the Wildcats compensate for a pitching staff that has struggles quite a bit this season and has one of the highest staff ERA’s in the league and has yielded over four runs per game to its opponents.
Kansas owns a great deal of its success this season to its ability to hold on to leads late and close out close games, thanks to the best closer in the Big 12 in junior Jordan Piche. A candidate for National Stopper of the Year, Piche has a league-best 10 saves and an ERA of 0.71 in 25 appearances and 51 innings of work.
The Jayhawks are led ofensively by senior infielder Alex Deleon, who is batting .323 with seven home runs and 39 runs batted in.
While Kansas is blessed with an outstanding closer, Kansas State has a pretty good relief pitcher itself in freshman Jake Matthys. The right-hander is 7-0 this season with a 1.73 ERA in 24 relief appearances. “His competitiveness and composure is pretty good,” K-State coach Brad Hill said about his young reliever.
Three Things To Watch For In the KU-K-State Series
- Kansas is riding a six-game winning streak. Can the Kansas pitchers slow down the scorching Kansas State bats enough to keep the games close and give the Jayhawks the opportunity to win?
- If Kansas holds the lead into the seventh or eighth innings, it could be all over for the Wildcats if they are forced to come from behind against KU’s Jordan Piche, one of the nation’s best closers.
- The winner of this series is going to be in very good position to win the regular-season crown.
Prediction: Kansas State will win two of the three games, setting up a season ending battle with Oklahoma at home in Manhattan next weekend for the Big 12 crown.
Keep up with all the Big 12 sports news and coverage and commentary on all of the major sports and conference championships at Talking12.com.