If it’s true that you learn something new every day, then Baylor’s 2017 baseball season resembled a semester in “Baseball 101: How to Win Games.”
A year later, the Bears want to move on to the master class.
Bit by bit, Baylor figured out how to win again last season. The Bears opened the year like a bonfire, burning to 14 wins in their first 15 games on their way to a 34-23 overall record, the first winning season in five years. They also garnered an at-large invitation to the NCAA’s Houston Regional, which also marked the first playoff trip since that 2012 season.
Now they know what it takes. So as the 2018 season dawns, they’re itching to put into practice the knowledge they gained.
The idea – more and better. Play even better, win even more.
“It takes some selflessness in regards to the individuals making sure they’re not trying to be the one that does everything and that’s all exciting and it gets their name in the paper or on TV,” said Baylor coach Steve Rodriguez, who enters his third season at the helm. “But just understanding that they might have that boring role where they have to sacrifice a guy over for someone else. And those are the things that win baseball games.
“The selfless acts that we talk about are the ones that get overlooked, but at the same time are probably the most valuable.”
There is not as much guesswork for Rodriguez as he fills out his lineup card for Friday’s season opener against Houston Baptist University. Naturally, the Bears lost some key performers from last year’s squad, including first baseman Aaron Dodson, outfielder Kameron Esthay and pitcher Montana Parsons. Yet Rodriguez believes that this year’s roster is the deepest he has fielded at Baylor, a sentiment supported by the BU players.
“I think this lineup has a shot at being just as good, if not better, than last year,” sophomore third baseman Davis Wendzel said. “I think we’ll do some great things. Can’t wait to see it.”
Wendzel is one of several sophomores who made a name for themselves as rookies last year – along with catcher Shea Langeliers and pitchers Cody Bradford and Hayden Kettler. They’re not wide-eyed and unfamiliar with the college baseball scene anymore.
“I think last year, especially for me, was just a huge learning process from the beginning,” said Wendzel, who hit .301 with eight home runs and 30 RBIs in 2017. “Just figuring out that the game is still played the same way, from high school into college. It’s really just the same game, you just have to slow it down a little bit.”
Langeliers delivered a monster freshman season, which has resulted in a heaping haul of preseason accolades, including All-America honors from multiple publications. He’s a weapon both offensively and defensively. He set a single-season school record by throwing out 26 baserunners attempting to steal. With the stick, Langeliers banged out a .313 batting average with 14 doubles, 10 home runs and 38 RBIs.
Where Langeliers thinks he can still grow is as a thinker.
“I was talking with Coach Rod and all the coaches in general and they said that the biggest thing for me is to improve my mental game,” Langeliers said. “Just thinking ahead, assuming, stuff like that, being mentally tough. If they want me to expand that part of the game, that’ll make me a better player.”
In addition to catcher, Langeliers will see time in a platoon situation at first base, Rodriguez said. The coach also plans to use senior Tucker Johnson and sophomore Andy Thomas at first. Thomas will spell Langeliers behind the dish when the latter mans the corner infield spot.
In the middle infield, Baylor features a pair of returning starters in junior Josh Bissonette (.272, 25 runs scored) at second and senior Tucker Cascadden (.264, 31 RBIs) at shortstop. Cascadden provided one of the grandest highlights of the season with a walk-off grand slam to beat Texas A&M at the Houston College Classic at Minute Maid Park. As it turned out, it was Cascadden’s lone homer of the year, but it was a big one.
With Langeliers behind the plate and Cascadden and Bissonette returning in the middle infield along with centerfielder Richard Cunningham, Baylor should be sturdy defensively up the middle. Cunningham, who made a variety of chase-down catches last season, will be flanked by a platoon of Levi Gilcrease and T.J. Raguse in left field and newcomer Cole Haring in right. Haring is a transfer from McLennan Community College who was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 37th round of last summer’s draft.
On the mound, Rodriguez plans to open with sophomore left-hander Cody Bradford as his Friday starter to begin the season. The 6-foot-3 Bradford won the Sunday starter job last year as a lanky, efficient, pitch-to-contact worker, tallying a 5-5 record with 43 strikeouts, 20 walks and a 5.52 ERA in 73.1 innings.
Bradford has worked to build muscle and add weight – “10-and-a-half pounds,” he said, proudly – over the offseason, and Rodriguez has been pleased with his consistency throughout the fall and preseason workouts.
“He was out with an injury all fall (of 2016),” Rodriguez said. “So as a freshman having to miss the whole strength and conditioning phase of our program didn’t really do him a whole lot of good. So, he came out, he did a good job for us, but you could just see that the lack of that (strength) really kind of hit him toward the end of the season.
“This year, he was able to be with us in the summer with our strength and conditioning people, taking classes, and then he was able to stay with us throughout the fall. He’s really spiked his game up pretty good to where we’re really happy with where he is. It’s going to be exciting to watch him develop.”
Bradford said that if there’s any more pressure that accompanies shifting to a Friday starting role, he’s not feeling it.
“From last year in the Sunday start, I guess it’s a mindset,” he said. “I don’t think of it as any different game than last year. I see it as a baseball game that we want to go out and win. So more pressure? Not necessarily. Is it important? Absolutely.”
The rest of the weekend rotation includes junior right-hander Kyle Hill (3-3, 2.98 ERA) and sophomore righty Hayden Kettler (3-0, 3.35). Hill excelled as Baylor’s setup man out of the bullpen last year, and Rodriguez said that Hill’s three-pitch mix translates well to a starting role. “The biggest thing for him is how deep he can get into the game,” Rodriguez said.
In the bullpen, senior Troy Montemayor has been Baylor’s Swiss watch over the past two years – extremely reliable. “The Mayor” has accumulated 26 saves over the past two years, while holding hitters to a .188 batting average.
“My job is to make this game a 7- and not a 9-inning game,” Montemayor said. “So as long as we have a lead going into the 8th, the game hopefully should be over.”
Right-handers Joe Heineman and Drew Robertson return as experienced arms out of the bullpen. The Bears also stockpiled some more southpaws in recruiting who should help, including Tyler Thomas and Ryan Lekich. Another newcomer who should log his share of innings is right-hander Jacob Ashkinos, a sophomore transfer from Cisco College.
Rodriguez may not need to rely on his rookies quite as heavily this year. Nevertheless, he has several who could make an impact as the season progresses. Nick Loftin is a gifted infielder out of Corpus Christi Ray High School who should push for playing time. Other freshmen who should add depth are infielder Billy Mote, outfielder Davion Downey and catcher/infielder Jacob Wyeth.
As a returning NCAA tournament team, Baylor may not sneak up on anyone this year. However, the Bears weren’t pegged as one of the Big 12 favorites, as the league’s coaches picked Baylor eighth out of nine teams in their preseason poll.
Baylor’s players said they’re not concerned with preseason rankings. They’ve learned the secret of success, now the task is to go out and win with even more frequency.
“We got to a regional finally, I’d like to host one honestly in my last season,” Montemayor said. “We just have to put it together and win a couple more games in the conference and build on that. There’s a lot of tough teams, we know that. We are confident in our ability, so we’ll see what happens.”