HOUSTON – Houston is a commuter school, right? That’s the longstanding reputation.
On Saturday, those commuters traveled up and down the basepaths, racking up all kinds of mileage. Top-seeded Houston motored to 20 hits on its way to a 17-3 joyride over second-seeded Baylor, ending the Bears’ season at the Houston Regional before a crowd of 3,385 at Schroeder Park.
Baylor (34-23) revived much of the school’s baseball tradition this season, returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. But the Bears finished the year meekly, ending with a six-game losing streak. Saturday’s game proved especially tough to swallow, considering the way Houston walloped the ball against the Bears’ seven pitchers.
Baylor coach Steve Rodriguez said he doesn’t usually deliver any long oratories following a season-ending loss, because the players’ minds are going in so many different directions. But he made sure to offer up some words of encouragement on Saturday.
“I told them that they have everything to be proud of for everything they did, everything they accomplished,” Rodriguez said. “The seniors who really were able to have that final senior year, that great moment, that they should be proud of. I just told them, season-wise, long-term, I’m proud of everything they did this year.”
The Bears were at least within chasing distance, trailing 8-3, until the seventh inning, when Houston (41-20) turned on the afterburners. The numbers tell the story, and it was an agonizing tale for the Bears: 14 Houston batters stepped into the batter’s box and pummeled three BU pitchers for seven hits, three walks, an error and eight runs. Baylor didn’t record an out until the 10th Houston hitter came to the plate, and that half of the inning lasted 67 pitches and 42 minutes.
“Even at 8-3, I was like, you know what? We still have a chance the way our guys are swinging it,” Rodriguez said. “But then they got a ridiculous amount of hits in a row, and we had a couple of walks. There was a point where I was like, ‘Man, we need to get an out.’
“I think a lot of our younger guys who are returning next year, they need to do that, they need to see it, need to understand that you just can’t lay balls in there with these guys.”
Following Friday night’s 8-5 loss to Texas A&M, Rodriguez said that the Bears would use every available arm they had to try to extend the season. He stayed true to that game plan, but the Cougars unleashed their share of hitting damage on virtually every pitcher Baylor sent to the mound. They scored on each of BU’s first six pitchers. Ironically, the only hurler to throw up a stop sign was senior Nick Lewis, who had struggled mightily lately but worked a scoreless ninth.
Early on, the Bears remained in the game despite a frustrating lack of offensive execution. They put the leadoff runner on base in each of the first four innings against Houston left-hander John King (8-1), but couldn’t bring that guy home to score. They hit into double plays in both the first and second innings, and ended up 1-for-8 (a .125 average) with runners in scoring position.
Junior Alex Phillips – who worked mostly as a midweek starter and setup man out of the bullpen this season – drew the starting nod for the Bears in the elimination game. But Houston chased him after just two innings.
In the first, Corey Julks shot a bullet over the left-field wall for his eighth home run of the year, giving the Cougars a 2-0 lead. They increased the edge to 3-0 in the second following a Joe Davis double and a Lael Lockhart RBI single.
Hayden Kettler relieved Phillips for the third inning. The freshman gave the Bears a chance, keeping the ball down and away from Houston’s hitters, leading to three straight hitless frames. Baylor looked right in the mix when Kettler induced a shallow popup from UH’s best hitter, Jake Scheiner, to end the fifth.
But the Cougars broke through against Kettler in the sixth. With a man on base, the freshman hung one to Davis, who golfed the ball deep to left, looking like Jordan Spieth using a 3-wood. BU’s normally reliable closer Troy Montemayor took over for Kettler at that point, and ran smack dab into a buzzsaw. The Cougars smacked everything Montemayor offered, adding three more runs, two coming on a Scheiner single.
That outburst pushed the lead to 8-0. The way King was going, the Cougars seemed to be in great shape. But Baylor showed some life in the bottom of the sixth, breaking up the shutout with a three-run flurry. Matt Menard yanked a two-run home run, then Aaron Dodson chased King from the game with a double. Davis Wendzel made it 8-3 when he greeted the new pitcher Fred Villarreal with a double of his own, scoring Dodson.
A five-run deficit didn’t feel insurmountable to the Bears. In Baylor’s last win, over Kansas State on May 18, it overcame a nine-run hole to come back for a 21-13 victory.
But then came the seventh inning – a debacle for the Bears, a delight for Houston’s hitters. The Cougars scored eight runs before the Bears tallied an out. In fact, neither Cody Bradford nor Kyle Ott ever retired a single batter before heading to the bench.
“Snowballing is a great way (to describe it),” Rodriguez said.
Houston coach Todd Whitting said that, in all his years of coaching, he couldn’t remember an inning where the first nine batters reached base.
“I don’t know that I can,” Whitting said. “I kept asking Coach (Trip) Couch, who stands next to me, how many outs, how many outs, how many outs? Just to make sure I don’t mess up the game. But that was pretty good, especially to do it after they’d just scored a couple of runs. … We definitely responded with a huge inning, kind of put that thing away.”
The biggest blow came on a three-run missile from Scheiner, the junior slugger’s 18th home run of the year. Scheiner, Hollis, Davis and Lockhart all ripped three hits apiece, with Scheiner driving in six runs.
Adding insult to ignominy, Baylor’s players had to sit through a 97-minute lightning delay that halted the action in the bottom of the ninth.
Rodriguez wanted his team to play better, to be sure. But he hoped that they’d take something from the experience. He compared it to a dad telling his child that a pot on the stove is hot – sometimes they’ll never believe you until they touch it.
“They need to see the good and the bad. Everybody loves the good. That’s easy,” Rodriguez said. “Everybody wants to win. But when you don’t win, exactly what are you taking from it and learning from it?
“And I hope the experience was good. I really do. I hope it was a good one, regardless of the outcome, because those experiences are what’s going to make you better.”