Kansas State baseball has been hot lately, but it has another tough test against UC Irvine, a historically good mid-major program with an interesting mascot — the Anteaters.
K-State earned a series win this past weekend against No. 7 Texas in wild fashion. On Thursday night, the Wildcats scored seven unanswered runs to come back and beat the Longhorns with a go-ahead three-run homer by Nick Goodwin in the eighth inning.
Then, the Wildcats cruised to an 8-1 victory on Friday because of a stellar pitching performance by RHP Blake Adams. Despite Saturday’s 2-4 loss, K-State looked good in the mid-week games, dominating in-state rival Wichita State 12-1 and beating the Omaha Mavericks 11-3.
With all the momentum on K-State’s side, the Wildcats will have to face a 21-13 UC Irvine team, who’s had its way with competitive West Coast clubs. The challenge could make or break any remaining post-season dreams, so let’s get to know the Anteaters.
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The good news for the third-best offense in the Big 12 is the Anteaters aren’t overpowering from a pitching perspective. The UC Irvine pitching staff has allowed 165 runs while the Wildcats have tallied 231 runs against tougher opponents.
The staff is headed by redshirt-sophomore Nick Pinto. The youngster leads all starting pitchers in earned runs average at 3.33 with a WHIP (Walks And Hits Per Inning Pitched) ratio of 1.38.
Pinto has tallied 55 strikeouts in nine appearances but only stouts a 1-3 win-loss record. He’s issued 29 runs, 19 earned runs and 21 walks alongside the 55 strikeouts.
Other weekend starters are Cameron Wheeler and Michael Frias, who both have an era just above five runs. Frias (5.24 era) has the better record of 4-1 while Wheeler has a 2-3 showing, despite the better 5.19 era.
Frias has started in all nine appearances, while Wheeler transitioned from the bullpen to a starter, starting four out of nine appearances. Both have good strikeout numbers for the number of innings they’ve put work into (Frias 50, Wheeler 23).
The strongest stat of both pitchers is the 1.08 WHIP from Wheeler and the 1.50 WHIP from Frias. Other than that, the Wildcats might look upon the match-ups favorably after facing four ranked opponents in conference play.
Despite K-State’s bullpen inconsistencies, the Wildcats have a favorable match-up on this side of the diamond as well.
The Anteaters tote a .257 batting average compared to their opponent’s .258, the only team with a winning record on K-State’s schedule with a lower batting average than their opponents.
UC Irvine’s Nathan Church and Ben Fitzgerald are the lone ‘Eaters to hit above .300, with Justin Torres hitting a close .293 average.
All three of those hitters have drawn 16 walks or more and have hit 61 RBIs and 12 big flies over outfield walls. That might sound impressive, but the all-time K-State home run king — Dylan Phillips — has one shy of that by himself.
Despite UC Irvine’s .618 winning percentage, the Wildcats should win the series. K-State leads the Anteaters in most hitting and starting pitching categories and are debatably just as good out of the bullpen.
K-State head coach Pete Hughes said they’re going to ease Blake Adams back into a starting role where he’s most comfortable after his dominant seven-inning performance against No. 7 Texas.
Sophomore Connor McCullough has been dominant, and the man they call “Big Griff” — Griffin Hassall — could make an appearance in Sunday’s showing depending on the first two games.
It’s tough to tell who fits where when coach Pete Hughes is playing the “win-at-all-cost” cards in the past few series, but whoever he throws out there has the potential to beat UC Irvine.
The Wildcats kick off the series with $2 Hot Dog Night at 6 p.m. on Friday at Tointon Family Stadium. Tickets are available at K-State Sports, and viewing is on Big 12 Now on ESPN+.