Since the Baylor baseball team wasn’t planning on returning to Waco after its series at Oklahoma State – the Bears will simply go from Stillwater to Oklahoma City, site of the Big 12 tournament – their travel bags appeared to be crammed with more stuff than usual.
Bags get pretty tight when you’re packing brooms.
The 15th-ranked Bears understand what’s at stake as they take on No. 16 OSU beginning Thursday at Allie P. Reynolds Stadium in Stillwater, Okla. They hold a slim half-game lead in the Big 12 title race on sizzling Texas Tech, and so they’re in that proverbial spot of “controlling their own destiny.” Sweep this series, and the Bears (33-13, 14-6) will be Big 12 regular-season champs for the first time since 2012.
“I think the guys are really confident,” Baylor pitcher Paul Dickens said. “We know what we need to do this weekend, and that’s sweep. It doesn’t matter what Tech does if we sweep. If we sweep, then we win. In the end, that’s kind of the goal for every weekend. So we’re going into this like any other weekend, our goal is to sweep.”
Baylor is well aware that road sweeps in the Big 12 are rarer than a pop radio hit that hasn’t been auto-tuned into oblivion. Sweeping a power-packed team like the third-place Cowboys (30-17, 12-9) will be a significant challenge, especially considering that this series will mark OSU’s last one at Allie P. Reynolds Stadium, where it has won 79 percent of its games since the ballpark’s debut in 1981. Next year Oklahoma State will open up a brand new $60 million home, O’Brate Stadium.
“They’re going to have a lot of energy coming,” Baylor coach Steve Rodriguez said. “It’s the last weekend of that ballpark, so it’s going to be pretty nostalgic in a lot of ways. So, we’re going to have to eliminate all that stuff, and really just kind of focus on once the game starts going from the first pitch to the last pitch.”
The Bears will need to be locked in if they want to keep their own pitches inside the walls of Allie P. Oklahoma State ranks first in the Big 12 and 10th nationally with 71 home runs on the year. Rodriguez noted that the Cowboys have launched more longballs in conference play (48) than the Bears have hit all season (45).
Dickens, Baylor’s Game 1 starter, said he’s not fretting about the Cowboys’ prodigious power. Instead, he’s just embracing the moment.
“Man, it’s awesome,” Dickens said. “This is the stuff you kind of dream about as a kid. Really, you have to soak it up. Be mentally focused, be ready to go, but in the end it’s a game and just having fun out there. Just because the situation changes doesn’t mean the game changes. It’s definitely a dream come true for me, and I’m hoping to be the best that I can for the team.”
Besides, Oklahoma State’s hurlers should have their own challenges in trying to retire Baylor’s hitters. The Bears continue to lead the conference in batting average at .319, a mark that ranks fourth in the country. And they’re peaking at the right time. In five of the past six games, Baylor has produced double-digit hits as a team – the Bears had nine hits in the one outlier – and is raking at a .366 clip in that span.
“We just have good hitters,” said junior DH Andy Thomas, who sports a .346 average. “We work hard in the cages, we work hard on our off days, we come to the ballpark ready to hit the fastball, ready to hit anything we see up. We just have good hitters, and like we’ve talked about before, it’s the contagious hitting. Once you get that going, it’s a whole lot of fun.”
Thomas is one of the more talkative BU players on a squad that isn’t exactly bashful. One of the hot topics of conversation of late is all that’s left to play for in the final two weeks of the season. Thomas said that the Bears have stated goals of winning the Big 12 regular-season title, repeating as Big 12 tournament champs in OKC, and capturing a top 8 national seed and host site for the NCAA tournament.
“This is what you want,” Thomas said. “This is what you play all season for, this series right here. There is no pressure in the world. We’re going to go out and handle business. This is what we live for.”
Rodriguez liked his team’s mindset as it boarded the bus for Oklahoma. However it plays out, the coach is extremely proud of his team, which has grappled through multiple injuries to put itself in position to seize a Big 12 championship.
“Everything that our guys have gone through with the coaching change and then just kind of tolerating me as the coach, I just think they’ve worked really hard,” Rodriguez said. “So, I’m really proud of these guys, to be honest, just to be put in the situation where we have a chance to win it.
“That, for me, is the biggest thing. Whether we do or we don’t, that’s going to be left up to the baseball gods. I just want our guys to go out and play well. They’ve earned a chance to win this thing.”
Bear Facts: Rodriguez said junior third baseman Davis Wendzel (.385, 39 RBIs) remains “day to day” with an internal oblique strain. “Will he be available this weekend? I don’t know. Like I said, it’s going to be based on him and how he feels,” Rodriguez said. If Wendzel can’t go, senior Cole Weaver (.381 average in 12 games) will get the nod. … In addition to batting average, Baylor also leads the conference in hits (524), slugging percentage (.482), fewest strikeouts at the plate (284), hit-by-pitches (66), team ERA (3.58), fewest runs allowed (186), and is tied with Oklahoma at No. 1 in fielding percentage (.979).