Kansas rallies to beat West Virginia in series opener

LAWRENCE, Kan. – Deflated after West Virginia took its only lead of the game in the eighth inning, senior centerfielder Tucker Tharp stepped into the batters box in the home half and blasted a two-run jack over the wall in left center to lift the Kansas baseball team to a 5-3 win over West Virginia Friday night at Hoglund Ballpark.

The Jayhawks (31-21, 13-9 Big 12) scored four of their five runs off two long balls, as junior left fielder Michael Suiter took WVU’s (27-18, 9-9) starter and defending Big 12 Pitcher of the Year Harrison Musgrave deep his first at bat of th game in the first inning, pacing KU to its seventh-straight conference win.

“We are playing to get into the NCAA Tournament right now,” Tharp said. “That home run meant a lot. It’s huge (to win on Friday night). Now we have a chance with two games left here at home. We can’t ask for anything more. We are getting their best baseball and they are getting ours.”

Not known for his power, Tharp’s sixth home run of the year came off WVU closer Sean Carley (5-2) and set the table for a promising weekend as the centerfielder closes out his career playing at Hoglund Ballpark.

“I couldn’t be more proud of that guy,” head coach Ritch Price said. “He is a non-scholarship guy I gave a roster spot to coming out of high school. He doesn’t get his first start until game 43 of his freshman year, and now he is a three-year starter and team captain. He exemplifies everything our program is about. He is first class on and off the field, a great teammate and a great competitor. That is one of my proudest moments to see that young man clutch up for us like that on senior weekend.”

Kansas struggled to execute the short game with three failed bunt attempts that could have been the difference in the ball game. However, a team vying for a bid to the NCAA Tournament found other ways to get the job done.

“That was a great college baseball game,” Price said. “One of the things that happens when you face a guy as good as Musgrave, the reigning Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, is that you are not going to string 10-12 hits against him. You are going to have to get clutch hits with two outs or put a big swing on the ball. Today we were fortunate to get the two two-run homers and the double off the wall by (Connor) McKay. It was a grinded out win. Our whole offensive philosophy is built on execution and we are 0-for-3 in sac bunts today. We could have lost a one-run game that we could have won if we did the little things that we have done well all year long. That’s as good of an offensive club we have played all year.”

West Virginia pounded out 10 hits off the KU pitching staff, eight of them coming from senior starter Jordan Piche’. Coming off back-to-back complete game wins, the righty tossed just seven innings, giving up two runs in the no decision. The Mountaineers worked Piche’ deep into counts all night until he exited after the seventh with a 95-pitch effort.

“I was really proud of him,” Price said. “He really grinded and had to work for every out today. They made him work– he only had two or three strikeouts. They worked his pitch count to almost 100 in seven innings and that’s what good teams do.”

Piche’ handed the ball over to freshman closer Stephen Villines (2-2) to start the eighth frame. Villines gave up a quick home run to WVU first baseman Ryan McBroom to give the Mountaineers their first lead of the game. After that, the side-armer came back out in the ninth with the lead and shut the door one, two, three.

Suiter and Tharp paced the Jayhawks with almost identical offensive numbers. Each posted two hits (2-for-4) with two RBIs and a home run. The only difference being Suiter touching home twice to Tharp’s lone run scored.

Kansas wasted no time taking the early 2-0 lead after Suiter smoked a liner over the wall in left field for the two-run home run. Junior shortstop Justin Protacio led off the game with a walk to set up the Suiter bomb with one out, after a failed bunt attempt by sophomore second baseman Colby Wright, 2-0 KU.

West Virginia answered in the fourth after back-to-back singles led off the inning. A quick fielder’s choice and a strikeout issued by Piche’ seemed good enough to get out of the jam, but WVU right fielder Brad Johnson hit one up the middle to drive in the run and cut the Jayhawks’ lead in half, 2-1.

The Mountaineers tied it up in the seventh, 2-2, before McBroom mashed one off Villines in the eighth, giving WVU its first and only lead of the game, 3-2.

KU rallied back in the eighth thanks to two clutch hits. Suiter led off the inning with a single through the left side before junior right fielder Dakota Smith fouled out down the right field line. With one out, West Virginia brought in Carley to close it out.

Fighting a 7-for-56 streak, junior designated hitter Connor McKay drove a 2-1 fastball to the wall in right center to score Suiter from first and tie the game up and bring Tharp to the dish. Tharp turned on the 0-1 fastball and lifted it over the wall in left to put the game out of reach and give Kansas the Friday night win against one of the top pitchers in the nation, 5-3.

“I think we just beat one of the best pitchers in America,” Price said. “That is a great win for our club. Now we have to finish and win the series. My guys are having so much fun in this dugout and they have a lot of energy. It is really a lot of fun to be a part of.”

The two squads are back on the diamond for game two of the series Saturday, May 10. Junior right-hander Robert Kahana will take the mound for the Jayhawks with first pitch slated for 2:05 pm. Fans can watch the game live on ESPN3 or listen via the airwaves on KLWN 1320.

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