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A perfect bounce-back outing

After a hiccup at Texas, KU closer Hunter Cranton slammed the door vs. K-State to get KU's postseason off on a high note

5 min read
KU closer Hunter Cranton fires a pitch to the plate during the ninth inning of the Jayhawks' 2-1 Big 12 tournament win over Kansas State on Tuesday in Arlington, Texas. [Kansas Athletics photo]

Bright and early on a Tuesday morning was a rare time for a bounce back, but that was exactly what Kansas baseball closer Hunter Cranton found himself in position to have during the Jayhawks’ 2-1 win over Kansas State at the Big 12 tournament in Arlington, Texas.

And boy did he need it.

It had been about three-and-a-half days since Cranton was last on the mound, and the memories of that one were still fresh in his mind.

Luckily, for him and the Jayhawks, his rocket right arm was fresh, too.

In his previous outing — last Thursday in Austin, Texas — Cranton gave up a pair of runs on two hits in the bottom of the ninth to allow the 24th-ranked Longhorns to steal a one-run win from the Jayhawks in a crucial regular season contest.

It hurt. It sucked. And it stuck with him for several hours after the outing. It also was something he knew he needed to get over as quickly as possible.

“Baseball’s tough,” Cranton told R1S1 Sports this week in a phone interview from Arlington. “Every now and then you’re obviously gonna fail. That happens. But bouncing back the way we did was great. (An outing like the one at Texas) does leave kind of a sour taste in your mouth, but as a closer, you have to be able to just flush things, whether it was good or whether it was bad.”

So, when Cranton stepped onto the mound with yet another one-run lead against Kansas State on Tuesday, he was determined to even the score.

And boy did he.

KU closer Hunter Cranton was all smiles during Game 2 of the regular season series at Kansas State, and he helped the Jayhawks top the Wildcats again at this week's Big 12 tournament in Arlington, Texas. [Kansas Athletics photo]

The second-year Jayhawk who originally hails from Newport Beach, California, was absolutely dominant, cranking his fastball up to speeds of 97-98 miles per hour and overpowering the three Kansas State batters he retired in order to pick up his 7th save of the season.

First, K-State left fielder Chuck Ingram struck out swinging on three pitches. Next up, center fielder Brendan Jones struck out swinging after working his way to a full-count.

Both saw serious gas from the right hand of Cranton, who said his arm felt incredible after a few days rest following the loss at Texas.

“As a reliever, you throw a lot,” Cranton said. “And over the course of a season, that can obviously take a toll. But when you get a couple days of rest, it makes such a difference.”

Finally, it was Cranton vs. Kaelen Culpepper for the final out — a battle between one of the Big 12’s best hitters and top closers.

Unlike the two batters before him, Culpepper was able to get his bat on Cranton’s best stuff. After fouling off a couple of pitches, he put one in play — this off of another 98 mph fireball from the KU closer.

“I wanted to go fastball the whole way,” Cranton said of the final pitch of the game. “I felt that if I slowed down with the slider he was just gonna kill it. So, the fastball was the perfect call from (pitching) coach (Brandon) Scott. When he hit it initially, I thought he hit it pretty well, and when I looked up and I was happy to see that it was about 20 feet in front of the warning track.”

While those three outs were Cranton’s biggest contribution to the critical Kansas victory. Jones, Ingram and Culpepper were not the only Wildcats he battled that day.

Kansas State had its own flame-thrower on the mound in the form of reliever Tyson Neighbors. And long before Cranton entered the game in the bottom of the ninth, he watched Neighbors hit 98 mph on the radar gun in striking out Jake English to end the eighth inning and then the final two KU batters in the top of the ninth after Lenny Ashby and Collier Cranford broke through for the game-winning run.

Asked if seeing Neighbors bring it on the mound before him did anything to add fire to his own outing, Cranton said: “I’m gonna be honest with you — 100%.”

“Everybody knows who Tyson Neighbors is,” he continued. “So, when he goes out there and he’s super-high velo and throwing really good pitches, it’s nothing but motivation. It’s just really exciting to be able to go out there behind him and see if you can perform and be just as good, if not better.”

He likened the anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better dynamic to the legendary rivalry between two of the NBA’s all-time greats and how Larry Bird and Magic Johnson always pushed themselves to new heights and greater competition.

“When you have somebody that you want to compete with constantly who is at that level, I think it helps you out,” Cranton said of what he called the healthy competition. “I think it’s great.”

So now it’s on to the next one, where 7th-seeded Kansas (30-21) will face top-seeded and 8th-ranked Oklahoma (35-18) at 12:30 p.m. Thursday on the right side of the double-elimination tournament.

Tuesday’s win gave Kansas and Cranton an extra and somewhat-unexpected day of rest. And we’ve seen what rest can do for Cranton in the late innings of crucial contests.

But even if he’s not able to rest, the adrenaline and intensity associated with the do-or-die portion of KU’s season has him ready to go every day and for as many innings as the Jayhawks need him.

“Oh, for sure,” Cranton said of being ready and willing to throw every day if needed. “At this point in the year, yeah. If you ask any one of our relievers, it’d be the same thing. We’ve got some dogs on this team and we’re all ready to go every day. Whatever it takes.”

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