It was almost fitting that when the sun began to cast over Hoglund Ballpark in the top of the second inning, Kansas baseball righty Ryan Zeferjahn began to shine on the mound.
Zeferjahn continued his dominant start to the season Sunday, striking out a career-high 14 batters in KU’s 7-1 win over Texas Southern.
“I thought it was his best (start) of the year,” KU baseball coach Ritch Price said after the game. “I was hoping that he would take another jump forward after having a really good outing last weekend, and I thought that’s the best he’s thrown his breaking ball and his changeup, and (he was) able to command his fastball.”
Zeferjahn’s success came after a shaky first inning in which Texas Southern scored its only run. After Zeferjahn hit first baseman Gaudencio Lucca, he committed a throwing error to first base and then threw a wild pitch, which allowed Lucca to advance to third.
A passed ball that rolled by the right side of catcher Jaxx Groshans then allowed Lucca to scamper home and score the opening run.
But after that opening run, Zeferjahn settled in and pumped his electric fastball past the Texas Southern batters while also offering a balanced mix of off-speed pitches.
Zeferjahn said he thought his outing was the most comfortable he’s been on the mound since he’s been at KU.
“That was probably my most confident game out there, knowing that I can command anything and just go after these guys,” Zeferjahn said. “And I think that really helped me with going through today.”
Zeferjahn struck each batter he faced at least once and threw almost 63 percent of his pitches for strikes.
“Very pleased,” Price said, “very pleased that he actually pitched today rather than just being a thrower out there.”
KU (8-2) supplied offense for Zeferjahn early in the second inning, when shortstop Benjamin Sems roped a bases-clearing triple to right field. The hit gave KU a 3-1 lead.
“I was just looking for a pitch elevated,” Sems said. “(Texas Southern starter Michael Villanueva) got me at two strikes and I had to battle on a couple of his tough pitches. I got a pitch I could drive, and I hit it.”
The Jayhawks provided more cushion in the fourth, where they tacked on three more runs after an RBI-double from Owen Taylor and a two-run single from Sems.
Sems, who spearheaded KU’s offensive production, finished with five RBIs on the day.
Price has tasked Sems with the role of taking over at shortstop for Matt McLaughlin—who signed with the Colorado Rockies last summer—and he was pleased with what he saw offensively from the sophomore against Texas Southern (2-9), but he’s hoping Sems can take another step defensively.
“I’m really happy for him,” Price said. “He’s a first-class young man, and he’s obviously got big shoes to fill replacing McLaughlin out there. Obviously, he had a big day at the plate, and he had a big hit (Saturday). My big thing for him is, if we can get him to play defense at a high level, with our pitching staff, we’ll have a really good team. But so far, the first three weeks he’s played well defensively.”
After a 10-game home stand to open the season, KU will now hit the road and play a two-game series against No. 4 Florida State, which will begin Monday.
“It’s really important that we got a series sweep this weekend because we’re going into a pretty rough two-week stretch where we go to Florida State and then St. John’s, who are both very good teams,” Zeferjahn said. “So, getting these wins I think put a little confidence in everyone. I think that’s going to really help us going forward.”
Texas Southern 100 000 00 — 1 4 2
Kansas 030 300 10 x — 7 9 2
W — Zeferjahn (3-0). L — Villanueva (1-1).
2B — James Cosentino, KU; Brett Vosik, KU, Taylor, KU. 3B—Sems, KU; Groshans, KU.
KU highlights — Zeferjahn, 6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 14 K; Tyler Davis, 2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 1 B, 2 K; Cosentino 2 for 3, R; Taylor, 1 for 3, 2 R, RBI, BB; Sems, 3 for 4, 5 RBI.