It took Kansas State seven innings to break through against Kansas’ starting pitcher Ryan Vanderhei.
Other than a solo home run by Jeff Heinrich in the bottom of first inning, the Wildcats had trouble hitting against him. With a little bit of fortune and relentlessness, the Wildcats were able to mount a comeback and defeat the in-state rival Kansas 6-3 Sunday at Tointon Family Stadium for the weekend series win.
“We set out a goal to beat KU this year,” Kansas State head coach Pete Hughes said. “It was important to us. We talked about it. I am happy for our guys that we accomplished the goal. I was proud of our guys this weekend. You have to bounce back after a disappointing loss on Friday. You bounce back Saturday and then you come from behind Sunday for a series clincher and you grind out that win. What a rewarding weekend for our program and our guys. When I got hired here, I got hired to beat KU among other things. I don’t take that lightly. Our players don’t either. We talk about it every single day. It is on every single one of our practice plans — beat KU.”
After K-State (25-22, 6-12 Big 12) took the early lead in the bottom of the first inning with Heinrich solo home run, Kansas responded in the top of the second inning with a RBI single to tie the game at 1-1.
Vanderhei began to groove through K-State’s lineup and Kansas (20-29, 4-14 Big 12) broke through against K-State’s starting pitcher Connor McCullough in the top of the fifth inning, scoring on a RBI double and a sacrifice fly to take a 3-1 lead.
The Wildcats continued to struggle against Vanderhei. It appeared the Jayhawk slinger was going to cruise through the sixth inning as he recorded the first two outs, but base hits by Brady Day and Heinrich put runners on first and second base with power hitter Dylan Phillips at the plate.
“(Vanderhei) threw a lot of strikes, more than he has in the past,” Hughes said. “Just the command of the baseball. Getting up in counts early. That was his best outing of the year. He got a little tired there at the end, because you keep grinding and keep working counts. You can hit a mistake, and we were fortunate enough to do that.”
Vanderhei got what he wanted out of the two-out battle with Phillips as the talented junior hit a high pop fly to shallow center field. Phillips slammed his bat to the ground after the he made contact before jogging to first base, assuming the ball was destined for a routine catch for the center fielder.
But Kansas center fielder Sergio Rivera misplayed the ball and dropped it, allowing both Day and Henrich to score, knotting the game up a three runs a piece.
“It definitely swung the energy back into our dugout,” Nick Goodwin said. “The were beating us 3-1 at that point, so that was a big hit right there. We needed that one. We ended up tying (the game) up and the energy was in our dugout.”
Goodwin said he would not definitively say that the game would have ended in a different outcome if the center fielder got Phillips’ pop fly because this team is a team known to come back late in games.
“Coach (Hughes) has been saying it all year – our entire (starting) lineup is a three-run home run waiting to happen,” Goodwin said. “Anybody can do damage in our lineup. We certainly would not have felt out of the game if (the fly ball drop) did not happen.”
K-State did not get Phillips home from second base in the bottom of the sixth inning after the error, but it got the lead back in the bottom of the seventh as Goodwin sent a laser missile to left field that got sailed over the outfield quickly for a go-ahead home run.
“Leading off the inning, coach (Hughes) gave me the green light to swing early in the count,” Goodwin said. “I am just looking for a pitch out over the plate that I can do some damage with. I got the pitch that I wanted and I did not miss it.”
A quick turn of events gave K-State 4-3 lead.
And the Wildcats were not done scoring in the inning as Cole Johnson got on base with a single to follow and Kaelen Culpepper sailed a home run to left-center field, extending their lead to 6-3, giving the Wildcats a cushion.
“I just got a lot of confidence in our offense and our players,” Hughes said. “I have seen them play enough to know that a matchup in our favor is in our favor. You just got to be patient sometimes in this game. If (our players) just let their skillset play out, and I relax a little bit, they are usually going to be productive. That is what happened today.”
K-State will wrap up the home portion of its regular season schedule this weekend when a three-game series starts on Friday.