In terms of its makeup, a baseball team is kind of like a rock band. There are lead singers who spend much of the time in the spotlight, as well as supporting artists like guitarists, drummers and backup vocalists.
But the show doesn’t really happen without the roadies and the sound technicians – the grunts who do the behind-the-scenes work.
Baylor’s baseball band was able to make some sweet music in 2017, mostly because guys understood their place. The Bears fashioned a 34-23 record and returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012, behind a rocking mix of veteran leaders and wide-eyed, promising newbies.
“We had seniors who played like seniors, who turned in those great senior years that you need to have,” Baylor coach Steve Rodriguez. “We don’t play well without those seniors helping the younger guys have the kind of success they did. Then you get those freshmen stepping up and kind of surprising – guys like Davis Wendzel and Shea Langeliers and Cody Bradford.
“Everybody knew their roles on this team, and it made for a good season and a pretty good team.”
In many ways, the 2017 Bears arrived a year ahead of schedule. Few knew what to expect out of this bunch, considering the influx of 19 newcomers to the program. Count Rodriguez among those who weren’t sure how it would all play out.
Sure, the second-year BU coach believed in the potential of some of those rookies and transfers. But he’s also been around long enough to know that potential and performance don’t always mesh.
Fortunately for Rodriguez and the Bears, the freshmen didn’t appear overwhelmed. Catcher Shea Langeliers started 55 games behind the plate, impressing with both his bat and his often electric defense. Langeliers hit .313 with 10 home runs – the most ever by a BU freshman catcher – and 38 RBIs, winning the Tribune-Herald’s Big 12 Freshman of the Year honor and being named a Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American.
Davis Wendzel split time between left field and third base. The California native overcame a sluggish start at the dish to finish with a .301 average, eight homers and 30 RBIs.
Cody Bradford held down Baylor’s Sunday starter role, recording a 5-5 record in 14 starts while walking only 20 batters in 73.1 innings. Bradford seemed to tire late in the year, giving up 13 home runs on the season and ending with a 5.52 ERA, but Rodriguez was pleased with the left-hander’s contributions.
“Cody Bradford was probably the biggest surprise, just because he didn’t get a chance to go through the fall with us,” Rodriguez said. “He was injured, and didn’t get a chance to do much on the field. I think late in the year he slowed down, got tired, and didn’t have the life on his ball that he did earlier in the year, but he had a phenomenal year and he’s a kid who is going to be a lot of fun to watch.”
Senior first baseman Aaron Dodson turned in the most productive year of his Baylor career, leading the team with a .344 batting average, 11 home runs, 42 RBIs and a .587 slugging percentage. Fifth-year senior Matt Menard provided steady hitting (.313, 28 RBIs) in the middle of the batting order along with his usual brand of sage, been-there-done-that wisdom.
Junior outfielder Kameron Esthay (.283, 9 HRs, 35 RBIs) turned in some big moments at the plate, while sophomore centerfielder Richard Cunningham (.306, 29 RBIs) proved valuable as both a top-of-the-order hitter and relentless fly ball chaser on defense.
On the mound, junior Montana Parsons – a transfer from San Jacinto College – emerged as Baylor’s steadiest starter, winning Big 12 Newcomer of the Year honors. The right-hander locked down BU’s Saturday starting role from Day One and recorded a 5-4 record with a 3.06 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 88.1 innings.
Senior Nick Lewis (6-5, 6.01 ERA) performed brilliantly in Baylor’s hot start to the season, as the Bears won 15 of their first 17 games. But Lewis struggled late in the year, and yielded the No. 1 starter role to Parsons for the NCAA tournament.
Troy Montemayor (3-1, 2.10 ERA, 12 saves) produced his second straight all-conference season at closer, while Drew Robertson, Hayden Kettler, Kyle Hill, Kyle Ott and Joe Heineman comprised a bullpen that Rodriguez said “was a big reason why we made it as far as we did.”
The faces will change again next year. Menard, Dodson and Lewis will depart. Juniors like Parsons and Esthay could leave as well should their names get called in this week’s Major League Draft.
But the band isn’t breaking up entirely. Key pieces like Langeliers, Cunningham, Wendzel, infielder Josh Bissonette and outfielder T.J. Raguse, among others, will return.
Rodriguez also signed a class of nine in November that could help patch any holes.