HOUSTON — On the final day of the weekend, the Baylor baseball team finally located the rally it had been hunting.
Down to their final strike in the ninth inning, the 16th-ranked Bears mounted a much-needed two-out rally with three straight base hits on their way to topping Texas State, 5-4, in Sunday’s finale of the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic at Minute Maid Park.
Just as was the case in losses to Texas A&M and Rice in their first two games of the weekend, the Bears (9-2) had to play chase. The Bobcats took a 4-2 lead in the fourth inning, forcing the Bears to try to rally. And this time, Baylor came through with the clutch knocks it needed.
Trailing 4-3 in the ninth, the Bears found themselves on their heels after Texas State’s Brent Hebert retired the first two hitters. But Richard Cunningham didn’t go down without a fight, battling through an eight-pitch at-bat before punching a bloop hit down the left-field line that bounced in fair territory before landing in the stands for a ground-rule double.
“Quite frankly, I’d gotten beat on a couple of at-bats before that,” said Cunningham in a postgame radio interview. “Then I was frustrated, falling behind 0-2 (in the count) to a really good pitcher. At that point I just said, ‘Just find a way on. Just get Nick Loftin up, he’ll do something special.’ And I was fortunate enough to grind out a tough at-bat. I’m grateful that I made some good decisions, took some quality pitches, and every once in a while you sneak one in.
“When that fell fair, I was like, ‘We’ll take it. Here you go, Nick.’”
Loftin picked up the baton and ran with it. The sophomore shortstop tagged an inside-out single to right field to send Cunningham sprinting to the plate and sliding in safely with the tying run. The Bears still weren’t done, though. Davis Wendzel hammered a double off the wall in left and Loftin, running hard all the way, made a head-first dive at the plate to score what turned out to be the winning run.
Throughout much of the game, the Bears squared up the ball and made strong contact, only to see the Bobcats (7-4) glove the ball and rob the Bears of a would-be hit. So, to see his team stick with their approach and come through with that ninth-inning flurry delighted head coach Steve Rodriguez.
“You could tell the guys were flustered,” Rodriguez said. “But the big thing I really liked is that they came out of the chute and were aggressive, they swung the bat well, and sometimes Texas State just made a great play. I told the guys, ‘We have no control over that.’ But they stayed with it, and so many great things happened, starting with that at-bat by Richie.”
He didn’t make a pitch, but Davion Downey could have been credited with a save. In the bottom of the ninth, the Bobcats’ Ryan Newman led off by hammering one on the screws to the gap in right-center. However, Downey – who had face-planted off the turf in a failed diving attempt at a catch in Saturday’s loss to Rice – didn’t back down, making an acrobatic leaping grab to erase a possible extra-base hit.
Rodriguez called the play “unbelievable.”
Perhaps inspired by that catch, closer Kyle Hill quickly settled down and struck out the final two batters to seal the win for the Bears. Hill (2-0) still owns a 0.00 ERA in his five appearances.
Cody Bradford started the game for Baylor, and the sophomore southpaw, who has been working through nagging soreness, displayed some superior command, striking out four in three innings, which actually marked his longest stint of the year.
Rodriguez said that he appreciated the contributions of the bullpen over the weekend.
“They were unbelievable,” the coach said. “We’re still figuring some things out on the mound, but those (bullpen) guys, they’re slowly solidifying things, finding some roles. But we’ve got to start getting more than three or four innings from our starters.”
In addition to Hill, the Bears got scoreless outings of the pen from Jimmy Winston, Jacob Ashkinos and Daniel Caruso.
The Bears got the game started out right at the plate. Cunningham led off the game with a home run off Texas State starter Connor Reich, his first of the season. Loftin and Wendzel followed with hits of their own, and then Loftin scored on Downey’s fielder’s-choice grounder to make it 2-0, BU.
However, Texas State staged a rapid rally in the bottom of the inning. Bradford issued a one-out walk, then Jaylen Hubbard belted an RBI triple. Hubbard later scored on Skyler Valentine’s single.
Anderson Needham took over for Bradford in the fourth inning, and struggled with his command. Needham walked a pair of batters in the inning and unfurled four wild pitches, as the Bobcats moved ahead, 4-2. Winston finally relieved Needham and induced a double play to escape without further trouble.
The Bears cut into the lead in the sixth when Andy Thomas singled to drive in Downey, who had reached on a fielder’s-choice grounder earlier in the inning. Baylor didn’t score again until the heroics of the ninth.
Baylor’s top of the order got the job done, recording seven of the team’s nine hits on the day. Cunningham, Loftin and Wendzel combined to go 7-for-15 (.467) with five runs scored, three doubles, one home run and three RBIs.
Baylor will start an eight-game homestand against UT-Arlington on Tuesday. The Bears were originally scheduled to travel to Nebraska next weekend, but the Huskers will instead come to Waco due to poor weather conditions in their home state.