Making the jump from high school baseball to the collegiate ranks can be a daunting task.
But when you have the makeup and ability former St. Charles East standout Wes Benjamin possesses, making that jump can be done.
The 18-year-old University of Kansas freshman has solidified his position as the number two pitcher in the Jayhawks’ starting rotation this season.
With all of the early morning conditioning/weightlifting sessions, coupled with competing against some of the nation’s best college baseball players, it hasn’t been easy.
“It has been difficult,” said Benjamin, who helped lead the Saints to back-to-back Class 4A regional titles the past two seasons. “It is a big jump from high school athletically and academically.”
Academically, Benjamin earned his way onto the Big 12 Commissioner’s honor roll and Athletic Director’s honor roll this past fall.
Meanwhile, in his collegiate debut back on Feb. 18, the left-hander was the winning pitcher during the Jayhawks’ 3-1 victory over Bowling Green in the Music City Classic held at Middle Tennessee State.
Less than a month later, Benjamin posted a no-decision despite going 9 innings during Kansas’ eventual 3-1, 14-inning triumph over Stony Brook in the Golden Gopher Classic held at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
Benjamin capped off the month of March by recording the win in the Jayhawks’ 5-2 victory over Texas Tech — Kansas’ first Big 12 Conference win of the season.
After suffering three consecutive April losses to Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, and Texas, Benjamin’s record slipped to 2-7.
Considering the fact that the 2-time Daily Herald All-Area selection posted an impressive 3-year varsity record of 25-5 at St. Charles East, you would think that a 2-7 mark in his collegiate rookie campaign might be a bit disconcerting.
“It is not a concern,” Benjamin said of his record. “It doesn’t define me.”
It isn’t a true reflection of his pitching either, as he had recorded a team-high 5 quality starts (6 innings or more) and 4.27 ERA to go with the 2-7 mark.
“Wes is a very mature young man,” said Kansas coach Ritch Price, who recorded his 300th career coaching victory for the Jayhawks earlier this season. “He recognizes that he has faced the number 2 (Baylor), 5 (Texas A&M), 18 (Texas), and 23 (Oklahoma) teams in the country.
“We’re asking a lot out of him as a freshman. The game is important to him and he continues to work hard and competes every time out.”
For Benjamin, it is all a part of the process.
“I’m learning every game and getting better, win or lose,” said Benjamin. “I’m trying to help out my team any way I can.”
Last Saturday, Benjamin helped out his team in a big way with a complete game performance during Kansas’ 6-0 victory over in-state rival Kansas State in Manhattan.
While matching a collegiate career high with 8 strikeouts and just 1 walk, Benjamin tossed the first complete game shutout by a Jayhawk since Shaeffer Hall did it in the 2009 NCAA Tournament.
It was also the first complete game shutout turned in by a freshman during Price’s 10 years at the helm for the Jayhawks.
It was likely the kind of performance that Price envisioned when he personally recruited Benjamin more than a year ago.
“Wes is an outstanding person and student with tremendous upside,” said Price. “Very good body and an excellent athlete with a quick arm who will continue to develop arm strength as he matures physically and works hard in the weight room.”
Relying on a fastball clocked between 86-93 mph, a slider, curve and changeup, Benjamin has enjoyed battling against some of the best teams and hitters in college baseball.
“It has been fun,” said Benjamin, who will take his 3-7 record and 3.77 ERA into Friday night’s key Big 12 Conference matchup with Missouri in Lawrence. “It is what I wanted when I chose Kansas. It’s a challenge every day out there.”
Price is happy to have Benjamin on his side.
“He has done very well,” said the coach. “It’s really difficult to be a weekend starter in a BCS Conference. His performance has been much better than his record indicates. As he improves his breaking ball and changeup over the next year, he will become one of the top left-handed pitchers in our great conference.
“He may be the best fielding pitcher that we have had in my 10 years at Kansas.”
Last month, Benjamin had an opportunity to pitch before a crowd of 7,300 when the Jayhawks visited Texas to face the nationally ranked Longhorns. The southpaw had another quality start in the Jayhawks’ 3-0 loss.
“It was a surreal experience,” said Benjamin, who received a tour of the Texas campus earlier that day from former Saints teammate Ryan Shaffrey, now a freshman student at Texas. “It was a cool moment.”
With 80 innings already under his belt, Benjamin’s summer plans of playing in the Northwoods League were scrapped by Price and Jayhawks’ coaching staff. Now he’ll stay on campus and work out every day while taking a summer school course, and return home in early July before returning to Kansas in August.
“I need to work on improving my velocity, gaining some weight, and developing more off-speed pitches,” said the 6-2, 180-pounder.
“He needs to improve his changeup and breaking ball to become a dominant pitcher at our level,” said Price.
Kansas (20-30) heads into the last weekend of the regular season with a half-game lead over Kansas State in the fight for the eighth and final spot for the upcoming Big 12 Conference Tournament (May 23-27) in Oklahoma City, Okla.
No matter what takes place the rest of the way this year, Price has big expectations for Benjamin over the next few seasons.
“Wes is one of the top freshman pitchers we’ve had in my 10 years at Kansas,” said the coach. “I believe he will become a third- to fifth-round draft pick by his junior year.”
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