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'Making our free throws' leads to KU baseball victory at Big 12 tourney

Game-winning sac fly the product of countless situational hitting drills just like it this season

4 min read
KU shortstop Collier Cranford celebrates with his teammates after driving home the winning run with a sacrifice fly to beat K-State on Tuesday morning at the Big 12 tournament. [Kansas Athletics photo]

There’s something uniquely appropriate about a baseball player at Kansas saying that making free throws won the Jayhawks their Big 12 Conference tournament opener on Tuesday morning in Arlington, Texas.

It wasn’t actual free throws, of course, but that mentality of treating must-have moments like charity shots in a basketball game did wonders for KU shortstop Collier Cranford with the game on the line against Kansas State on Tuesday morning.

After designated hitter Lenny Ashby led off the top of the ninth inning of a 1-1 game with a triple off the left-field wall, it was Cranford’s turn to step into the batter’s box with a huge opportunity in front of him.

Rather than make the moment bigger than it already was, Cranford fell back on KU’s training and quickly remembered there was a reason the Jayhawks have worked on that exact situation — runner on third, less than two outs — pretty much every day of the 2024 season.

“We call it making our free throws,” Cranford told R1S1 Sports in a phone interview after Tuesday’s 2-1 win over K-State. “And we do it basically every single day.”

Like free throw shooting in a basketball practice, which often comes at the end after all of the other work has been done, the KU baseball version of free throw shooting is usually short and sweet.

It’s typically done during a partner-hitting drill. Cranford has partnered all season with infielder Kodey Shojinaga. With a runner at third and either one out or none, the goal is to get that runner home at whatever cost.

Sacrifice fly. Hard groundball to the right side. Base hit. Wild pitch or passed ball. Whatever the Jayhawks can come up with to get the run home is enough for them to be deemed successful in “making our free throws.”

They usually go through the different sets of hitters twice. And as long as they’ve done their job, they move on to the next item on the practice agenda.

“The first time I ever heard it was from Coach Fitzgerald,” Cranford told R1S1 Sports. “I don’t know if he got it from someone else or not. But it’s like the same concept in basketball. In theory, it’s not the hardest task to do. But at the end of games thinking of it in those terms helps your approach a lot.”

In this particular instance, Cranford’s game-winning RBI came on a 1-0 count when he lifted an 84 mph pitch that was sinking in the zone to deep center field to allow pinch runner Sam Hunt to easily trot home with the go-ahead run.

Cranford felt good about it as soon as he made contact. And he immediately — however briefly — flashed back to all of the times he’s done that exact thing with the Jayhawks on the practice field.

Failure is a part of baseball. So, even in practice, Cranford and his teammates are not perfect. But the importance the coaching staff puts on coming through in that situation in practice makes it easier to deliver when the game is on the line.

“Let’s just say that if you don’t make your free throws in practice it’s not fun,” Cranford joked.

How many times did he have to find that out?

“More than I care to admit,” he added.

None of those past hiccups mattered on Tuesday, however. The only thing that did was that Cranford came through when it counted.

He wasn’t alone, of course. And he was the first to pass credit to so many other Jayhawks for Tuesday’s big win.

“The first thing I wanted to say was that was a hell of an at-bat by Lenny,” Cranford said of the leadoff triple that came on a full-count. “He took some really tough pitches. And when you’re on deck waiting to hit, every pitch you get to see just really helps your timing for the next at-bat. Lenny did the hard part for sure. And then showed off his speed to get that triple.”

Cranford finished the day 1-for-3 at the plate, with a double, an RBI and the ever-important sacrifice fly. When asked if anyone yelled anything about him sinking his free throws when he returned to the dugout after getting the run home, Cranford said simply, "I don't know, to be honest. I was too busy screaming my head off to hear anything."

As a team, KU (30-21) managed just five hits on Tuesday. But the KU pitching staff, led by starter Evan Shaw, who went five innings on short rest, limited the Wildcats to just seven hits and that lone run.

“It was just a great team win,” Cranford said. “Everybody did their jobs. We got a great start from Evan. That was really big out of him. And then we pieced it together out of the bullpen, with every one of those guys pitching great, too.”

“At this time of the year, every win’s a big one,” he added. “We lost some heartbreakers last week (at No. 24 Texas), but I think the main point was we didn’t let it change our approach or the work we do or the way we prepare. We have a lot of confidence in our offense and we know that we can score runs in bunches. We just all have a true belief in ourselves.”

The runs didn’t come in bunches in this one, but the one that mattered most was the result of countless days of picturing that exact situation and then delivering when it presented itself.

Thanks to 9th-seeded TCU's win over No. 4 seed West Virginia, the Jayhawks will get Wednesday off and will next play in the double-elimination tournament at 12:30 p.m. Thursday against the winner of the Wednesday game between No. 1 Oklahoma and TCU.

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