Steve Rodriguez is upbeat and jovial enough that he doesn’t get too worked up in an interview setting. But he bristled a bit at one of the questions posed to him on Friday, Baylor baseball’s opening day of preseason practice – as much as Rodriguez can bristle, anyway.
Were the Bears hungrier over the offseason after coming up short in the 2017 NCAA tournament?
“I’m trying to figure out what that means coming up short,” Rodriguez said. “If somebody had told us that we were going to do what we did last year and get to a regional, having a top 20 RPI on the season, I don’t know if that’s really coming up short. There’s only one team that doesn’t come up short in the full season.
“Do we want to win games in the postseason? Absolutely. Do we want to go to Omaha? Absolutely. But there’s only eight teams that actually get to do that. The expectations, I think, last year were met. In fact, I believe we exceeded our expectations from last year. Now it’s just a matter of allowing our guys to realize that it is possible.”
Baylor indeed made an outfield wall-scaling jump in 2017, Rodriguez’s second season at the helm. The Bears put together a 34-23 overall record and a 12-12 mark in the Big 12, earning a spot in an NCAA regional for the first time since 2012. Yes, they were quickly ushered out of the postseason after a pair of losses to Texas A&M and Houston at the Houston Regional, which resulted in a six-game losing streak to end the year.
But you didn’t need to line the players up in the door jamb to measure the signs of growth. They were readily apparent.
Baylor should field an even stronger team in 2018 – in every way.
“Everybody always talks about the excitement of everything (on the first practice),” Rodriguez said. “But the excitement started back in August, watching these guys come in, getting our strength and conditioning program going and just watching guys grow, watching guys gain 20 to 24 pounds in strength and muscle. That’s been really exciting.”
The Bears’ roster is well-stocked with experienced position players and pitchers. Sophomore catcher Shea Langeliers swung a hefty bat in his opening season at Baylor Ballpark, and enters the season as a preseason All-American by several publications. The batting order also features the likes of third baseman Davis Wendzel, second baseman Josh Bissonette and centerfielder Richard Cunningham.
All-conference closer Troy Montemayor is back to try to slam the door on BU’s wins, while sophomore left-hander Cody Bradford is the lone returning weekend starter and is poised for a breakout year, Rodriguez said. The coach also likes what he’s seen from right-handers Kyle Hill and Hayden Kettler on the mound.
Montemayor said that the 2017 season provided an education that the Bears desperately needed.
“We figured out how to win. We hadn’t done that the last couple years and we finally put it together,” he said. “Obviously, that regional was kind of rough, but we found a way to put some wins together. And I think moving forward we’ll know how to do that better this year.”
Plenty of new faces will also make their debut appearance on Baylor’s giant scoreboard screen for player introductions. Rodriguez said he thinks infielder Nick Loftin, a MaxPreps All-American out of Corpus Christi Ray, and outfielder Cole Haring, a transfer from McLennan Community College, could make a sudden impact, although many of the newcomers will get their chances.
Baylor will open up the season at home with a weekend series against Purdue Feb. 16-18. One change that fans will notice at Baylor Ballpark this year is the addition of a pair of digital clocks – one hanging over the press box and the other located under the outfield scoreboard. They’re 15-second pitch clocks, implemented on an experimental basis by the Big 12, designed to keep the game moving. A pitcher who doesn’t fire to the plate within that 15-second time frame will be given a ball in the count, while a hitter not fixed in the batter’s box will be hit with a strike by the umpire.
“The pitch clock, in my opinion, will have absolutely zero effect,” Rodriguez said. “We’re doing it for the simple purpose for people not trying to slow games down, and there’s really no need to slow it down. I believe in playing fast baseball in regards to the timing of everything.
“I went through a lot of our games just to see how it would really affect us, if it would, and most of our guys were anywhere from 9 to 11 seconds with regards to getting rid of a pitch. So it’s going to be a clock up there that should have really no relevance on anything. But, like I said, there’s going to be some teams it’s going to affect, and that’s what we’re trying to fix.”