This week’s Big 12 baseball preview features two teams that are toiling at opposite ends of the conference standings. Seven spots separate the two teams in this season’s league race, but don’t let that fool you. This should be a real dogfight, despite the disparity in their season records.
The weekend series between Kansas State and TCU – outside of Manhattan, Kan., and Ft, Worth, of course – may not seem to have much attraction, given where the two teams are situated in the standings. But the truth is, the three games between these two teams has major implications at both ends of the conference standings.
What is at stake for TCU when Kansas State comes calling this weekend is the opportunity to make up ground on league-leading Oklahoma State. The first-place Cowboys are playing out of the conference this weekend, which means that head coach Jim Schlossnagle’s Horned Frogs could potentially move into a tie with the Cowboys with a three-game sweep of Kansas State.
What makes this a dangerous series for TCU is that Kansas State doesn’t have nearly as much to lose, but everything to gain with a good three games against the home team in Ft. Worth. The Wildcats, the defending regular-season Big 12 champions, have had a very disappointing season thus far. At 4-11 in league play in 2014, Kansas State is in real danger of being left out of the conference postseason championship tournament, for which only eight teams qualify.
Kansas State is a game back of Baylor in the win column and only one game behind seventh-place Oklahoma. Baylor and Oklahoma face each other this weekend, which gives the Wildcats an opportunity to pass one of those teams in the standings with a good series at home against TCU.
TCU leads the all-time series with K-State, which is just 11 games long, with victories over the Wildcats in six of the 11 games, but are just 1-2 in games played in Manhattan. The Horned Frogs come into the Kansas State series with nine straight victories and won 16 of 17 games in the month of April, the best record in the conference during that time. TCU’s last loss came on April 12, a 5-1 loss to Kansas in the series finale. The Horned Frogs swept both West Virginia and Texas during the month, and the three wins over Texas were in Austin.
If Kansas State is going to get anything done against TCU this weekend, though, the Cats are going to have to do it against one of the Big 12’s best starting rotations. Juniors Brandon Finnegan and Preston Morrison have 13 wins between them this season and both have ERAs under 2.00, both overall and in Big 12 play. Finnegan, a left-handed thrower with a 7-2 record this season, is averaging 12 strikeouts per game. The Horned Frogs also have a good closer in Riley Ferrell, who have 10 saves on the season and seven in eight opportunities against teams in the Big 12.
The Kansas State offense has not been as productive as it was a year ago, when the Wildcats led the nation with a team batting average of .322. The Wildcats are hitting a collective .292 through all games, but are just .251 against Big 12 pitching. Second baseman Ross Kivett, the 2013 Big 12 Player of the Year, is having another solid season with an overall average of .339 (.315 in the conference) and an on-base percentage of .452, second best in the Big 12 through all games.
K-State’s hottest hitter in Big 12 action has been freshman Tanner DeVinny, who is batting .349 with a league-best .472 on-base percentage. DeVinny also leads the Big 12 with a .628 slugging average.
Only Baylor has scored fewer runs in Big 12 play than the Horned Frogs, but the Frogs get away with it because their pitching is so good. Don’t be fooled, though, TCU does have good hitters in its lineup. Three Horned Frogs rank in the top 10 in the Big 12 in hitting during the conference season. Left-fielder Boomer White leads the TCU starting lineup with a .328 average in Big 12 play. Right behind White is right-fielder Dylan Fitzgerald at .321 and third-baseman Derek Odell, hitting .312 in 15 conference games.
My pick: TCU will win the first two games in the series behind standout starters Finnegan and Morrison, but Kansas State will salvage the final game in the series.
Another weekend series of some importance is the three games between Oklahoma and Baylor. Both teams are in the fight to avoid being left out of the Big 12 Championship tournament. The outcome of this series could go a long way toward determining who gets in and who doesn’t, with Kansas State breathing right up the back of both teams for the eighth and final spot in the postseason conference tournament.
As hot as TCU has been in the month of April, Oklahoma finds itself reeling in the opposite direction. The Sooners went 21-10 in the first two months of the season, but April has been a train wreck. OU has been 5-11 in April and is currently mired in a seven-game losing streak, including five losses in the last two Big 12 series.
The Oklahoma-Baylor series is going to be all about Baylor’s hitting vs. Oklahoma’s pitching. The Bears are dead last in the Big 12 with a team batting average of .206, while the Sooner pitchers are yielding almost six earned runs a game, worst in the Big 12. Which ever team gets the better of this matchup will come away with the “W.”
My pick: This is Oklahoma’s last home series of the season and probably the Sooners last chance to win a series with TCU and Bedlam rival Oklahoma State dead ahead on the schedule, the latter two series on the road. OU will win two of three against Baylor, but it will be close and could just as easily go the other way.