When he was coming up as a ballplayer, if Steve Rodriguez saw a pitch he liked he took a hack at it. Didn’t matter what the count was, he was swinging.
That assertive approach served Rodriguez well. It helped him become one of Pepperdine’s all-time top hitters during his college days. It greased his path to the big leagues, as he had a 31-game stint in “The Show” with the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers in 1995.
Now that hack-and-attack mindset is transforming the Baylor baseball team.
Entering their penultimate Big 12 series, the Bears (29-17 overall, 8-10 Big 12) are connecting for a .292 team batting average. That’s the second-best mark in the Big 12 behind fourth-ranked Texas Tech (.303) and it’s the program’s best average since the 2012 Bears produced a .309 team average.
“I was an aggressive hitter. I wasn’t one for taking a lot of pitches,” Rodriguez said. “If I saw something I liked to hit, whether it was an offspeed pitch or a fastball, I swung. Just because I never wanted to put my at-bat in a lot of other people’s hands, whether it was an umpire or somebody else.
“I just want to make sure these guys stay aggressive in offensive counts, and when they get a good pitch to hit they make sure they lay a good swing on something. What you don’t want to do is walk up there and not be ready when that first pitch you get is something that you should really do some damage to.”
Best of all for the Bears – they’ve shown the ability to be both aggressive and disciplined at once. Baylor batters have struck out just 289 times in 46 games, and are best in the Big 12 in not swinging and missing. Every other team in the Big 12 has fanned more than 300 times and Oklahoma State – Baylor’s upcoming opponent – ranks as the worst on the K counter with 404 strikeouts.
“I’d say he encourages us to be aggressive,” Baylor freshman catcher Shea Langeliers said of Rodriguez. “But when it’s time to get the job done, it’s time to get the job done. So, that’s our job right now is just to execute.”
The Bears were able to fatten up their batting averages in a pair of romps over Prairie View A&M this week, collecting 38 hits over the two games. Rodriguez said that those games were important for the players to get their timing back after an eight-day layoff.
That said, the players were still able to get some cuts in during the break. Freshman third baseman Davis Wendzel, who went 5-for-7 with six RBIs in the two-game sweep of Prairie View, said that whenever he wanted to take a break from studying for final exams, he headed right to the batting cages.
“Finals helped us rejuvenate and restart from the long first three-quarters of the season,” Wendzel said. “I know I was in the cages at some ridiculous hours, after studying, getting study breaks at 2 in the morning and hitting. So I knew I was ready to be comfortable up there.”
Oklahoma State (24-21, 6-11) hasn’t produced the kind of season fans in Stillwater were projecting. Last year, Josh Holliday’s club rolled to a 43-22 record and a trip to the College World Series, but they’ve suffered a backslide in 2017. The Cowboys rank seventh in the conference in hitting (.262) and eighth in pitching (4.36 team ERA) and have won just two of six of their Big 12 series thus far.
That makes the Cowboys desperate, and a desperate team is sometimes a dangerous one. From Baylor’s vantage point, it’s all about hitting, pitching and catching – executing the game. Rodriguez said that when his team does that well, “we’ll go up against anybody in the country.” But when they don’t, wins are harder to come by.
“I’m really excited about the position we’re in, excited about the resume we’ve put together this year,” Rodriguez said. “Hopefully our guys continue to play well. They should be pretty refreshed after a week off and finals, and they have our destiny in their hands right now.”
Bear Facts: Projected pitching matchups for the Baylor-OSU series are as follows – Friday: BU RHP Nick Lewis (5-4, 4.48 ERA) vs. BU RHP Tyler Buffett (5-4, 4.74); Saturday: BU RHP Montana Parsons (4-2, 2.71) vs. OSU RHP Joe Lienhard (2-1, 4.70); Sunday: BU LHP Cody Bradford (5-4, 4.57) vs. OSU RHP Blake Battenfield (2-4, 4.91). Bradford pitched Tuesday against Prairie View, but Rodriguez said he would “probably” still go in the finale for the Bears.