Several of Baylor’s baseball seniors still hold vivid memories of hoisting the Big 12 trophy into the air on the field of Baylor Ballpark. Back in 2012, when the Bears became the first team in conference history to sweep their first six league series, they reveled in their moment of celebratory achievement with the championship trophy.
So the last thing the Bears want to see is someone else experiencing the same glory on their own turf.
The 13th-ranked TCU Horned Frogs venture to Waco for a three-game, regular season-closing series beginning Thursday. TCU (36-14, 15-6) has plenty to play for too, as the Frogs sit just one game back of conference-leading Oklahoma State entering the final weekend. A Big 12 title is still very much in play.
Baylor’s players said they’d love to throw a wrench into TCU’s plans.
“We’re definitely going to come out ready to play this weekend,” senior second baseman Lawton Langford said. “It’s always fun playing TCU. I feel like it’s kind of a new rival in the Big 12, with them being so close in Fort Worth. We’re looking forward to them coming down here and spoiling (their celebration).”
Baylor (23-27, 7-13) has less tangible motivation, outside of seeding for the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City. The Bears managed to clinch a spot in the conference tourney without playing a game last week, thanks to losses from cellar-dwelling Kansas State.
While finishing in the top eight of the league wasn’t Baylor’s goal at the start of the year, that mission grew far more important to the team as the Bears struggled through much of Big 12 play. Baylor and Oklahoma are the only two Big 12 teams to have qualified for every conference tournament in league history, and the seniors had no desire to be the team that snapped that streak.
“It was big-time. I was one of the guys who was like, ‘Let’s go! We have to do this!’” said closer Josh Michalec.
“We knew there was a long streak of Baylor teams who had made it to the tournament,” Langford said. “So we definitely didn’t want to be the senior class not to get there. It’s good, it’s relieving, to make the tournament.”
Michalec also has a chance to set yet another saves record this weekend. With one more save, the senior right-hander from Houston would tie the Big 12’s single-season record for saves in a season, while two would make him the outright leader. He ranks third nationally with 19 saves.
“It’s cool to hear,” Michalec said. “If I end up tying it or breaking it, that means we’re winning. So that’s all I’m really worried about right now.”
Naturally, vanquishing the Frogs won’t be an easy task for Baylor. TCU washes into Waco like a purple tidal wave, having won 21 of its last 23 games. The Frogs feature one of the most formidable pitching staffs in the country behind left-hander Brandon Finnegan (8-2, 1.66 ERA), right-hander Preston Morrison (7-3, 1.28) and freshman southpaw Tyler Alexander (7-3, 2.23), an efficient trio that has combined for only 40 walks in 236 innings.
They’ll encounter a Baylor batting order that hasn’t struck much fear in opposing hurlers, with a season average of .233. But signs of life have started to emerge, as the Bears have banged out at least 10 hits in each of their last three games, and are hitting .330 in that span.
A friendlier wind
Baylor assistant coach Steve “Hoot” Johnigan said he’s spotted better plate discipline from the BU hitters in recent weeks. It also doesn’t hurt that the wind has been blowing out toward center field more often in May than it did in March.
“Now all of the sudden some balls that might’ve been hit early in the year with the wind blowing in that were F7s, now they’re doubles off the walls or home runs,” Johnigan said. “How much psyche does that add to a guy’s confidence level? It’s big-time. For us to string some hits together and win, it’s real encouraging.”
Baylor will counter TCU’s rotation with senior right-hander Dillon Newman for Thursday’s opener and freshman lefty Daniel Castano Friday. Beyond that, it’s up in the air, as the BU coaches haven’t named a starter for the third game. Drew Tolson tossed 86 pitches in a 5-3 win over UT-San Antonio Tuesday, but could be in line for some more innings, Johnigan said. Nick Lewis or Sean Spicer also factor in as options, while Austin Stone hasn’t been dismissed as a possibility either. Stone has missed the last five weeks with an arm injury suffered against Dallas Baptist.
Stone was set to pitch a bullpen session Wednesday, then be reevaluated.
“We’re not going to force the issue. He wants to (pitch), and we’d love for him to,” Johnigan said. “But I don’t know if it’ll happen this weekend. … It’s not totally ruled out.”
BEAR FACTS: Baylor will honor its senior Diamond Girls prior to Thursday’s opener, while Friday’s game will feature the traditional “Senior Day” tribute to the graduating ballplayers, plus a fireworks show following the game. … Saturday’s first pitch is set for 6:35, but a pregame ceremony to retire Jason Jennings’ No. 17 jersey will begin at 6. Jennings, a two-time All-American, two-time academic All-American and the consensus college baseball player of the year in 1999, will join the late Mickey Sullivan as the only BU baseball players to receive that honor. “I think it’s remarkably special in the life of Baylor University and in the life of Jason Jennings,” Baylor coach Steve Smith said. “I think, as I’ve heard Judge (Ken) Starr say on a number of times, and I believe he’s quoting scripture when he says it, honor to whom honor’s due. … To me, when you’re retiring a number, that’s not something you take lightly.”