Cats look to stay atop crowded Big 12

By Joel Jellison

The opportunity at hand for the Kansas State baseball team is unlike any it’s experienced in the Big 12 era.

With six conference games remaining, the Wildcats are currently in a three-way tie for first place in the Big 12 at 11-7 in league playwith Oklahoma and West Virginia.

The Wildcats (34-15) haven’t finished better than third in the Big 12 — doing it the 2010 season when many of the current K-State seniors were freshman.

K-State will travel to Kansas this weekend for a three-game series with a Jayhawks team currently sitting in fourth place. After that, the Wildcats return home for the first time in two weeks to host Oklahoma.

The Big 12 standings are so tight this week that the teams at the top could take a dramatic tumble and nearly any team could win the conference. Of the 10 teams in the conference, seven are still in play for the regular-season title.

“It’s a crazy deal right now,” K-State coach Brad Hill said. “I don’t do the math, but someone has come out and said we could be first or seventh right now. That’s where it’s at, it’s just a matter of trying to play the same baseball you’ve been doing.”

K-State senior Tanner Witt said the team is in uncharted territory right now, but following the precedent set by the Wildcats’ football and men’s basketball programs this season.

Both the football and basketball team won Big 12 titles this season, and if the baseball team added one, it would be the first time a Big 12 school won those three titles in the same season since Texas did it in 2005.

“It’s somewhere we really haven’t been before,” Witt said. “My freshman year was the highest we’ve finished — third. With what football and basketball did, winning Big 12 championships, for us, it would be awesome to bring another to K-State.”

The Wildcats have put themselves in this position in the strangest of ways. A year ago, K-State had it’s streak of three-straight NCAA Regional appearances snapped when it finished 27-31.

That lackluster season, combined with low expectations lobbied on the team from outside sources, created a combination that motivated a turnaround.

“Last year was a bad year,” Witt said. “Everyone we have here doesn’t like losing. Hitting rock bottom really got to us, we wanted to prove to everyone that wasn’t us. The guys we have now, it’s a lot of if I don’t get it done, the guy behind me will.

“Every body is holding their own and that’s what we didn’t have last year. This year everyone brings something to the table.”

Hill said he expected his team to turn it around after last season, despite being relatively young this year. He said players have stepped up as leaders to steer the young players in the right direction.

“I expected us to be a good ball club, I expected our leaders to do a fantastic job, our older guys to really corral everybody and keep everybody on task,” he said. “Our preparation’s been pretty good. I think they do a good job of keeping each other accountable, and then a good job of keeping our young guys accountable and make sure they understand that how you prepare is how you will end up playing.”

The Wildcats did it with hitting, first, leading the nation in batting average for 40 games before slipping down a few spots last week. And then they flipped their own script, using pitching and defense to win games over the past three weeks.

Hill said the pitchers stepping up lately has been a key as quality arms from other teams have slowed their hitting down.

“We’ve seen some good pitching staffs, and that old baseball adage is good pitching is going to shut down good hitting, and they’ve done that,” he said. “But yet our pitchers have stepped up and done a good job of holding down opponents.”

The Wildcats will first have to take care of a KU team that could benefit greatly from sweeping K-State. If the Jayhawks could pull off the sweep this weekend, in what is their Big 12 finale, they could potentially win the conference title — with some help around the league of course.

Witt said KU has a comparable team to the Wildcats right now, and he expects it to be an extremely competitive series.

The Jayhawks are 17-3 at home this season, and Hill said their success comes from the fact that they just do a lot of things right.

“They’re really good, they’ve done a good job of adapting to their lineup and the personnel that they have,” he said. “They’re scrappy, they bunt, they hit-and-run, they probably have more stolen bases than we have right now. It’s just going to keep us on our toes.”

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