Steve Rodriguez offered a polite response to the question, but he quickly shot down the premise.
Asked if there was any extra motivational opportunity for his Baylor baseball team as it gets set to play in an NCAA regional hosted by the No. 1 national seed, Rodriguez reminded that this is the NCAA tournament.
Heck, everybody is motivated at this point. How could you not be?
“There would be motivation if we were sent to the 2 seed or the 3 seed as well,” Rodriguez said. “I just think that once you go into regionals, you’re going to go up against some of the best teams in the country, and they’re the best for a reason. .... So I think no matter who you get in this draw, you’re going to go up against a team that’s either really hot or really good. So you’ve got to figure out which one it is and do the best you can to counteract.”
Baylor (34-17) appreciates the challenge that rests ahead this weekend. The Bears know how good No. 1 seed UCLA is – they played them last year, and they’ve been effusive in their praise for the Bruins this week – but Baylor remains plenty confident in its own strengths. The Bears are still playing to win.
“At this point in the season, we’re all in the playoff and we all can win,” said BU designated hitter Andy Thomas. “The worst 4 seed can beat the best 1 seed. So at this point, it’s bring your best game and let the best man win.”
Baylor will open up play at the Los Angeles Regional against Loyola Marymount (32-23) at 3 p.m. Central Friday. Should the Bears win that one, they’ll take on the UCLA-Omaha winner on Saturday, while a loss would force them to have to win out in order to advance on to the Super Regional round.
“California Baseball” is the operative label affixed to the style that teams like LMU and UCLA play. Typically, that means an emphasis on “small ball” – pitching well, executing on defense, and bunting runners over into scoring position rather than always swinging for the fences.
It’s nothing unfamiliar to the Bears. After all, Rodriguez coached at Pepperdine for a dozen years. So, the Bears say they’ll focus on their own execution – on making the right defensive play, and limiting free baserunners via walks.
Baylor junior pitcher Paul Dickens said that he isn’t worried about facing a team that might bunt it more frequently, as he almost considers that a gift.
“You have to consider whenever they bunt the ball, that’s an out,” Dickens said. “They’re giving you an out. They’re just trying to advance the runner, so it’s not really a stressful situation. All of our guys have been working on bunt defense. .... We’re prepared for it, and we know that’s the game they try to play. If they give us free outs, then we’re going to take that.”
Loyola Marymount will be making its first NCAA regional trip since 2000, but the Bears aren’t viewing them as a pushover. One of the top pitchers in the country sports an LMU jersey, that being senior right-hander Codie Paiva, who ranks 11th nationally with a 1.71 ERA. (UCLA’s Ryan Garcia is No. 5 in the country with a 1.42 ERA.)
“Loyola is a really good team, and that’s one of the things that everybody is missing, that we have to play Loyola first,” Rodriguez said. “The (West Coast Conference) pitcher of the year is on LMU, and Coach Jason Gill and I go way back, and I know he does a very good job with regard to them being a very well-coached team. So we have to do some things really right in regard to beating the Lions before we have to worry about going up against UCLA.”
Baylor will have to do a whole lot of things right in order to win the program’s first regional since 2012. But the Bears are not short on talent or tenacity, and when you get down to it the Bears believe they’re better than the 16th-best No. 2 seed in the country, if you’re judging the NCAA regionals by an S-curve.
“I mean, I guess you put the lowest 2 seed there (in Los Angeles),” said junior slugger Davis Wendzel. “I don’t think we’re the lowest 2 seed by any means. I think we’re one of the highest, if not the highest. So them sending us there is a little slap in the face, but I’m fine with it. We’ve been doubted before, and we’ll show them.”