“There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is, ‘You never know.’” – Former major league pitcher Joaquin Andujar
Andujar famously said a mouthful with that “one” word, but it’s a baseball axiom that remains true to this very day.
You’d better believe Steve Rodriguez didn’t know. Back in February before the Bears ever played their first game, the second-year Baylor baseball coach found himself wondering. He scanned the talent that he had on hand, examined the attitude of the club, and surmised that he could have a pretty good team on his hands. But he still wasn’t completely sure.
And even Rodriguez admits he may have undersold the team’s potential.
“I always have my own private, personal predictions, in regards to what I hoped for as a team and stuff like that,” Rodriguez said. “And needless to say, this team has exceeded those expectations.”
This year’s Baylor team is like the prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box. Until you dig it out, rip it open and look at it, you really have no idea whether yours is a nifty keeper or a dud.
Remember, Baylor’s opening day roster featured 19 newcomers, plus two redshirt players who hadn’t suited up for the Bears in a game prior to this year. Nobody knew how this thing would turn out. Even the guys in uniform didn’t know.
“Really, I had no expectations at all,” senior catcher Matt Menard said. “Coming in, I think we had no expectations because we had a lot of new guys who hadn’t played at this level before. But knowing what they’re capable of, now we do have a higher expectation for ourselves and our standard has risen.”
And the standard is this – Baylor has a NCAA tournament team on its hands. Yes, even after the Bears lost their final home series of the season to eighth-place Kansas State, they’re a tournament team. It shouldn’t really even matter what the Bears do this week at the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City.
So, look, here’s the deal. I think Steve Smith was a pretty good baseball coach. Over his two-decade run presiding over the program, he landed far more hits than misses. He stretched his team’s 11.7 scholarships as far as he possibly could, considering the inherent sticker shock some recruits faced when viewing Baylor’s tuition costs.
But it was also pretty apparent after the 2015 season that the time for a change had arrived. Rodriguez blew in from the West Coast with a fresh energy. He stressed a commitment to defense, to executing the right play at the right time. The coaches would sometimes put the fielders in impossible situations – “OK, the fastest guy in the country is on third base, I want the rightfielder to throw him out at the plate” – with the goal of preparing them for anything they might be faced with on the diamond.
Still, you figured it would take some time. Last year’s Baylor team made some baby steps, but still finished 24-29 and out of NCAA tournament consideration for the fourth straight year.
When this season arrived, there were so many new guys that Baylor could have easily added name tags as a line-item budget expense. It was hard to figure how they’d all adapt. And, not surprisingly, some have made the transition better than others.
The mystery of Baylor’s missing identity has proven more fun to unravel than a M. Night Shyamalan movie. (When was his last hit, anyway? Make that a lot more fun).
Over time, they revealed themselves, little by little. They’re a team that doesn’t beat themselves. They can be streaky at the plate, but they’ve got some pop. And while the pitching staff isn’t loaded with aces, you also wouldn’t consider Baylor’s poker hand to be littered with jokers, either.
Defensively, Baylor is tied for 78th nationally with a .973 fielding percentage. That’s not a wow number, obviously. But consider that 295 college baseball teams are ranked in the NCAA’s stat leaders, and that Baylor’s season total of 53 errors (in 53 games) are only eight more than Texas Tech, which ranks 20th in the country.
Guys like Richard Cunningham, Josh Bissonette and Tucker Cascadden have displayed YouTube-worthy glovework at times. And the Bears have turned 50 double plays on the season, which ranks 32nd in the land.
Several players who have been around Baylor Ballpark for a few seasons have admitted that the weight-training program is more intense under Rodriguez than prior to his arrival. Now in Year 2, that seems to be paying off with the team’s power numbers. The Bears have smacked 51 home runs on the season, four more than they hit in three combined seasons from 2013-15. Two BU hitters, Aaron Dodson and Shea Langeliers, have tagged 10 longballs each, giving the Bears a pair of double-digit homer guys for the first time since 2010, when Max Muncy hit 11 and Logan Vick had 10.
Plus, Doddy and Langeliers could have company soon, as Kameron Esthay has tagged nine home runs and Davis Wendzel has hit eight. Even better yet for the Bears – they seem to be getting stronger as the year grows longer. Baylor has hit 35 homers in its past 26 games after connecting for only 14 in the first 27.
Entering the Big 12 tournament opener against West Virginia at the ungodly hour of 9 a.m. on Wednesday (ungodly for ballplayers and sportswriters, whose genus species is Latenightus Owlicus), the Bears have already done enough to make an NCAA regional. They’re 34-19 on the year with a 12-12 record in the Big 12, which owns the No. 1 RPI in the country as a conference, percentage points better than the mighty SEC. And speaking of RPI, Baylor’s is at 19. Even after dropping nine spots from last week, that’s a strong number.
This time next week, when the NCAA field is released, the Bears will be in it for the first time since 2012. Bank on it.
If you didn’t know, now you know.