Commentary

KSU earns first-ever tourney win

Wildcats will face top seed Rice in winners' bracket of Houston Region

Originally Published: May 29, 2009
By Tim Griffin | ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- It would have been hard to imagine a better scenario for Kansas State's first-ever NCAA tournament game -- even if it was more than 109 years in the making.

The way the Wildcats approached their opening NCAA game, it almost was worth the wait.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Morris
AP PhotoKansas State will send ace A.J. Morris to the mound to face Rice in the winners' bracket of the Houston Regional on Saturday.

The Wildcats charged through their opener in the Houston Regional with the swagger of a team apparently familiar with playing in late May. KSU erupted for 12 runs in the first three innings and cruised from there in a convincing 16-8 victory over Xavier. It was the Wildcats' biggest scoring binge since scoring 22 runs against North Dakota on April 29.

"It was awesome to look up and see that," KSU winning pitcher Lance Hoge said. "Any time your offense goes up there and puts those numbers up like that it makes pitching a lot easier. It was a great experience."

Almost as important as what the Wildcats were able to do in their tournament opener was who they didn't have to use in Friday's game. By going with Hoge, KSU was able to save All-American pitcher A.J. Morris for Saturday's second-round game against Rice.

The top-seeded Owls advanced to the winners' bracket with a 5-2 victory over Sam Houston State in the night game of the tournament's first day, marking their 13th straight regional victory.

"I promise we have confidence every day and if we didn't have it in Lance today, I wouldn't have pitched him," KSU coach Brad Hill said. "But A.J. is going out tomorrow and we have a lot of confidence in him, too. We're taking them one at a time, but we're happy with the win today and looking forward to tomorrow."

Rice will counter with Ryan Berry, who has notched a 7-0 record with a 1.89 ERA and is the Owls' most tournament-tested pitcher. Both Berry and Morris played high school ball at nearby Humble High School in Humble, Texas.

"He obviously is one of the top pitchers in the country," Rice coach Wayne Graham said of Morris. "But I kind of like the guy we are throwing, too."

Rice right fielder Chad Mozingo also is excited about the challenge of facing Morris, who won his first 11 games of the season en route to a 13-1 record with a 1.84 ERA.

"We've had some success against better pitching," said Mozingo, who collected three hits in Rice's victory despite playing with a broken hamate bone in his right hand. "I'm ready and the team is ready to rise to the occasion."

KSU jumped on beleaguered Xavier starter Zac Richard for four runs in the first inning and put the game away with eight more runs in the third in a 17-hit barrage that included nine extra-base hits and three homers.

"There wasn't much to think back on," Xavier coach Scott Googins said. "They were hitting pretty much everything we threw up there."

Punctuating the hitting spree was KSU first baseman Justin Bloxom, who produced the first 5-for-5 performance in his career. Bloxom ripped a pair of homers, two doubles and a single as he drove in five runs.

"It was pretty easy hitting and you like being in those situations," Bloxom said. "You feel loose and confident. Confidence is a big thing in hitting."

Bloxom missed hitting a third home run by only a couple of feet on one of his doubles. He finished with 13 total bases in the biggest output by a KSU hitter in more than three years.

But he wasn't alone. Jordan Cruz slammed three hits and drove in five runs and Nick Martini added three hits and three RBIs.

Richard, who was the standout pitcher in Xavier's Atlantic 10 championship triumph, struggled from the opening pitch against the Wildcats. Rice appeared to be sitting on his curveball as they pounded out four straight hits in the first inning as the Musketeers' ace was dragging.

"To be honest, he was pitching on guts today," Googins said. "He had absolutely nothing on his fastball. I tip my cap to him. He didn't want to come out and was battling."

Xavier was also playing in its first tournament game in its history, but fell into a quick hole because of KSU's early offensive onslaught.

"I felt no sense of nervousness or excitement just to be here," Googins said. "Everybody was locked in. Your pitching sets the tempo and Zac has been the guy for us. He wasn't today."

KSU (42-16-1) didn't appear awed by the surroundings. In order to maintain that attitude, they approached the game like any another regular-season contest.

"We've played 60 games before and in reality, this is just another game, another nine innings," Cruz said. "We can't put too much emphasis on it because then, you get your nerves into it. We wanted to try to calm down people as much as possible and stay with the exact same thing we've done every game -- just joking around and having fun.

"Because if you can't have fun, you're just going to panic and put too much pressure on yourself."

After only one game, these Wildcats appear to have a pretty good idea of what tournament baseball is all about.

Tomorrow, with their ace ready against one of the nation's elite programs, they will learn even more.

Tim Griffin covers college sports for ESPN.com.

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