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Wildcats face uphill climb at tourney

By Cole Manbeck

Fifteen years worth of history says Kansas State won’t be hoisting a Big 12 Championship trophy this Sunday. The eighth-seeded Wildcats, who begin play in the Big 12 championship on Wednesday against No. 1-seed Baylor at 12:30 p.m. in Oklahoma City, will try to defy the odds.

“Hey, we’re the No. 8 seed, no one is expecting anything out of us,” said K-State coach Brad Hill, whose team beat out Texas Tech for the last spot in the tournament. “We get to play with that chip on our shoulder and play with the underdog role a little bit.”

An eight seed has never won the conference tournament, although Missouri nearly put an end to that streak last season. The Tigers became the first No. 8 seed in Big 12 tournament history to make it to the championship game before falling in extra innings to No. 2 seed Texas A&M.

If the Wildcats (26-29, 7-17) are to put themselves in a position to replicate Missouri’s success from last year’s tournament, they’ll have to get quality starting pitching, something K-State has lacked for much of the season. K-State ranks last in the Big 12 with a team ERA of 5.31 this season and has surrendered 40 home runs, 16 more than the next-closest team in the Big 12. The Wildcats lead the Big 12 in hits allowed, walks, and are yielding a league-worst .288 opponents’ batting average.

But there’s reason for optimism. Over the last three weeks, K-State’s pitching has improved immensely, led by senior Kayvon Bahramzadeh and junior Joe Flattery — two guys the Wildcats will lean on heavily if they’re to have success this week.

“Those two guys will have to win for us to have a chance,” Hill said. “No pressure, huh? That’s pretty blunt but pretty honest.”

Bahramzadeh (7-3), who will start Wednesday’s opener against the Bears, has won his last three starts in dominant fashion. The right-hander has allowed just four earned runs over his last 19 2/3 innings, and during that stretch, has given up just eight hits, walked four and struck out 15.

Flattery, who was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week for his complete-game win last Friday at Texas Tech, has allowed just seven earned runs over his last 22 2/3 innings while walking just two batters during that time. Hill said he likes the way Bahramzadeh and Flattery are jumping ahead of hitters early in the count.

“They’re attacking hitters and putting them on the defensive instead of the offensive,” he said. “It’s strike one and it’s another pitch in the zone and go in and out. They’re pitching and they’re competing. They’re really competing when they have to.”

Bahramzadeh will face a stiff challenge in Baylor, which Baseball America ranked as the No. 6 team in the country in this week’s poll. The Bears (42-12, 20-4) won their first 18 games in conference play before losing four of their last six league games to end the regular season.

Baylor enters the tournament with the league’s best batting average (.312) while also leading the conference with 34 home runs. The Bears have a deep lineup, with seven of their regular starters hitting .300 or better on the season.

“It will be key to not let them get on a roll and have big innings offensively,” Hill said. “They have a number of kids in their lineup who are good two-strike hitters. What we’d like them to do is put the ball in play early in the count on one of your pitches because some of those guys get better as they get deeper in the count. That’s the big part of it, try to get them aggressive early and hitting the pitches that you want them to hit as opposed to getting deeper in the count.”

Despite how the matchup may look on paper, K-State has proven it can compete with the league’s top teams, including Baylor. The Wildcats were swept by the Bears in Manhattan in April, but led the final two games late before losing 14-12 in game two and 12-11 in 11 innings in the series finale.

“We were competing back at that point in time and fighting for our lives in the conference,” Hill said. “The guys were up to the challenge, Baylor was undefeated and we were locked in. We were focused and we had a pretty good weekend, we just didn’t win any games.”

K-State, which will be making its sixth straight appearance in the conference tournament, hopes it can change its fortune beginning Wednesday.

“You’ve got to have some confidence with Kayvon going out there and pitching,” said Hill, whose seen his team win seven of its last nine games. “If we have confidence in our pitching it sure makes it a lot easier on us.

“I think we’ll have an opportunity to be competitive so let’s see what happens.”

More on Baylor, KSU and the tournament

Baylor’s starting rotation features two of the Big 12’s best in Josh Turley (8-0, 1.67 ERA) and Trent Blank (10-1, 2.11 ERA). The Bears’ team ERA is 3.12, ranking third in the Big 12.

K-State ranks fourth in the conference in hitting with a .282 average and the Wildcats are tied for second with 28 home runs as a team. Jared King, K-State’s sophomore center fielder, led the conference with a .378 batting average this season, while first baseman Wade Hinkle is second in the league with 10 home runs and sixth with 48 RBIs.

If K-State can upset the Bears, it would play the winner of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State (4/5 seed matchup) on Thursday at 4 p.m. If the Wildcats lose their opener, they’ll play the loser of the Oklahoma/Oklahoma State game at 9 a.m. on Thursday. The loser of that game will be eliminated from the field.

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