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Feb. 12, 2013
Kansas head coach Ritch Price, Associate head coach Ryan Graves and select student-athletes met with the media on Tuesday to preview the upcoming season.
Price and the Jayhawks will open the 2013 campaign against Nevada with a four-game series at Hohokam Park in Mesa, Ariz. The teams will meet in the first contest of the set on Friday at 2 p.m. (CST).
Below is a transcript of Price's press conference as well as interviews with a handful of athletes.
Kansas head coach Ritch Price
“It’s a really exciting time for us as we prepare to go to Arizona on Friday to open the season. I think we’re as prepared as you could possibly be when you play in the Midwest; we’ve only had one night inside (during preseason practice) and even when it’s been cold we’ve still gone outside and scrimmaged on a daily basis thanks to the AstroTurf.
“I want to compliment our three senior captains. We’re still one of the youngest teams in America; there are 22 freshmen and sophomores on our roster, which is unheard of in college baseball. I think all three of those young men have done a fabulous job of setting a good example. All three of those young men have completely different personalities, as you’ll see. Kevin Kuntz is one of the quietest guys walking the planet, (Jordan) J.D. Dreiling might enjoy the college athlete experience more than anybody – he’s Mr. KU and Mr. Lawrence. Then, Alex DeLeon is southern California swagger through-and-through. They’re three unique guys, but I think they’ve done a great job of setting the tone for the young guys in our program.
“To give you a little background on Nevada (our first opponent), they were co-champions of the WAC (Western Athletic Conference) last year. Great scheduling on my part. The young man that is pitching for them on Friday night is predicted to be one of the top-15 picks in the professional baseball draft. He’s 92-97 mph (with the fastball); I would imagine with spring training opening up and all those workouts at 9 a.m., and with us playing at 1 p.m. (Mountain Time), I think there literally might be 50-75 (radar) guns behind home plate. It’s a great opportunity for our program. When you play in the Big 12 Conference, you get a power arm and a potential high draft pick on Friday night (most of the time), so we’re going to find out early what it takes to play at our level. It’s something our guys are looking forward to, the challenge ahead.”
On the pitching being the strength of the team:
“On paper, that’s certainly the strength of our club. In the 10 years that I’ve been at KU, we’ve never returned all three weekend starters. This is the first time that’s been the case. Frank Duncan will be a junior, who pitched on Friday nights last year and made all 15 starts that he had a year ago. The freshman, Wes Benjamin, did the same and he’s now a sophomore; then Thomas Taylor is back pitching on Sunday. We’ve returned Tanner Poppe to the starter’s role, whether its back on the weekend or in the midweek, which is what he did as a freshman and sophomore. On paper, it’s four of the most impressive guys that we’ve had, but at the same time, those guys have to get better, too. That’s the key in the development process: it’s one thing to have experience, but you still need guys that can get the job done and compete at this level. That’s what it takes to be successful in our league, you have to be a Top-25 club.”
On junior Ka’iana Eldredge’s development:
“One of the things with Ka’iana, when I recruited him, I did so because of his versatility and the athlete that he is. We thought he would make that move when James Stanfield graduated. As a freshman, he caught on Tuesday nights and played second base on the weekends. Then last year, with Alex DeLeon’s emergence, we didn’t catch him very much with Stanfield and DeLeon giving us the opportunity to do that. He’s a really good athlete. The first thing that’s going to jump out at you when you come to watch him play, he’s not in the standard big body catcher, he’s more the (Craig) Biggio body type. He’s a good runner, he’s athletic and he’s got good hands. I’ve been fortunate enough to coach one catcher in my career that played in the big leagues and three others that made it to Triple-A. He throws better than any of those guys. But the important thing is to be a receiver. That’s something we need to see development from him in; his receiving skills and his blocking skills. That’s the question mark going in. He struggled a little bit our first weekend (of practice), he was a little bit better our second weekend of scrimmages and he was better this last weekend, so he’s gotten better each week. I think you’re going to continue to see that throughout the course of the season.”
On the progress of the offense:
“I think we’ve made really good progress. Obviously, when you start five freshmen like we did a year ago, you’re going to struggle in our conference. Those young men have all made progress with the bat. As good as our pitching has been, our offense has been very good in the scrimmages on the weekends, too. A year ago, when we had (Tanner) Poppe walking out there throwing 94 mph, (Thomas) Taylor throwing 90-92 mph and (Frank) Duncan throwing 90-91 mph, they dominated our young hitters. We’ve done a much better job at the plate this year and I’m pleased with the progress that we’ve made.”
On how much Thomas Taylor has developed:
“He came in after he had pitched his team to the Kansas state championship his junior year (of high school) and we signed him in November of his senior year. He had Tommy John surgery during his senior year, so he missed his first year (at KU). The thing I’m most pleased about with Thomas is that he’s become a three-pitch guy. His breaking ball is significantly better; his velocity has peaked, he was 90-94 mph in our intersquad scrimmage two weeks ago. To see him throwing his fastball, and commanding it, over 90 mph is exciting for us. Then, I think the other thing is when Thomas graduates, his mom can send me a gift certificate to Outback (Steakhouse) to say ‘thank you’, because he’s matured. He’s grown up; he’s gone through the same things that a lot of other student-athletes do in that growing-up process, but he’s definitely more mature. He’s much more competitive, he’s much more grown up and in reality, he wants to play professional baseball. He knows that it’s now or never; he’s got to go out and pitch at a high level or he knows that it won’t take place. But I’m really pleased with how he’s matured since he’s been with us.”
On the battle at second base:
“That’s really the one position on paper that you could look at and say, ‘where are you really concerned?’ Justin Protacio is a really good teammate. He won our Kent McCarthy Mr. Jayhawk Award last year as a utility player, which is really tough to do. I think it speaks volumes for how good of a teammate he is. He always hustles; he competes; he picks his teammates up and he plays well defensively. The question with him is if he’s going to hit enough. Quite frankly, he has struggled. But if he hits, with his defense, he has a really good chance to solidify our infield. (Tommy) Mirabelli is a freshman that we’d like to wait to play him until he’s completely ready. He had a tough fall. He got dominated by the velocity on our club, but I will pay that young man a compliment. He’s made progress in the three weeks (of preseason). He got two hits on Saturday and got two more the day before. He made a couple diving plays defensively and he runs really well. He brings some things to the table, but we’d like to make sure that he isn’t thrown to the wolves too early, because last year we did that with some of our freshmen.”
On the importance of the pitching staff:
“I think the Kansas City Royals are the greatest example of this. You looked at the bullpen a year ago, and they were top five or top six in baseball in earned run average, which was without (Joakim) Soria. Their bullpen was fabulous. But if you looked at their starting pitching, they would routinely get blown out early and as a result, they lost 90 games a year ago. They’ve upgraded their staff, which has renewed enthusiasm throughout their organization. The same is true in college baseball. If your starters don’t get you to the seventh inning with an opportunity to win, you’re not going to win very many series. I’m a firm believer that it all starts with your starting pitching. With the bat change two years ago, scoring was down last year. There are 60 percent less home runs being hit than there were two years ago. It’s put a premium on starting pitching.
“The other area where we’ve struggled the last two years, we’ve had some special guys pitch at the end of games in my time at Kansas. Don Czyz was the National Closer of the Year in 2006; Paul Smyth was really good; Brett Bochy – we were in the Top 25 when he went down and needed Tommy John surgery (in 2010). Since then we’ve really struggled at the back end of games. (Robert) Kahana was really good last year out of the bullpen for us as a freshman and then we’ve added some other guys. When you see Jordan Piché pitch, he’s got a chance to be in that class of guys. I get excited every time Coach (Ryan) Graves hands him the ball to pitch. You can’t blow games at the end and expect to be successful. We were 22nd in the country (in 2010), we’d won our first three series before Bochy went down and we blew five games in the ninth inning, which is devastating to your club. But I feel really good about Kahana, Piché and some of the other guys at the back end of games.”
Junior pitcher Frank Duncan
On noticing a significant change in the defensive presence in the outfield:
“Absolutely. I have noticed it a lot. It starts in center field with Joe Moroney and Tucker Tharp, two of the most fun guys to watch in my opinion. Joe (Moroney) has made some unreal catches on balls that nobody thought would be caught. Tucker (Tharp) makes diving plays and hard plays look routine. The outfield should be one of the most fun areas to watch this year.”
On Ka’iana Eldredge transitioning from second base to catcher this season:
“Skip (head coach Ritch Price) said it best, ‘Ka’I (Eldredge) is a crazy athlete. He can do whatever he wants to on the baseball field. I have never seen anybody throw the ball the way he does behind the plate. He has improved so much on his receiving skills that I no longer worry about stuff like that. Eldredge is a great guy to throw to and he is going to definitely throw a lot of guys out this year, which will definitely help us out.”
Junior catcher Ka’iana Eldredge
On making the adjustment this season switching from second base to catcher:
“For the past two years I have been playing second base. My senior year in high school I played catcher. The transition has been more complex, because I am a full-time catcher now and there is a lot more things to catching than simply catching 85 mph fastballs. When you come to the collegiate level, especially in the Big 12, it is a lot different. The process has been going well. I feel like I am getting better and more comfortable behind the plate. I am comfortable with my new role. As far as it being difficult, there have been a few difficulties with blocking and receiving, but the more reps and the more practice I get, the more comfortable I will become behind the plate. Having experience on the mound definitely makes my job a lot easier. They (pitchers) know what they are doing, so all I have to do is just feed off of them and get to know their tendencies. In order for us to be successful defensively, it has to start with pitching and catching and the relationship that we have.”
Senior infielder Jordan Dreiling
On the changes in college baseball since his freshman season at KU:
“When I came in, we had guys like Tony Thompson, Buck Afenir, Robbie Price, and David Narodowski, they could all hit the ball out of the yard with the old bats. Now, with the new bats, if you are going to hit a home run, you really have to step into it. It changes the game. From my skill-set, it actually plays into my favor, being able to handle the bat. I won’t hit a lot of home runs. I will play my game, get base hits and do all the little things I can to help this team be successful.
On the outlook of the infield this season:
“We have three seniors: myself, Alex DeLeon, and Kevin Kuntz. Whoever is going to fill that second base role, which I have total confidence in, will do just fine. We know our chemistry, our strengths, and we have been together for the last three or four years so I think we will be fine.”