Fifth century Greek playwright Aeschylus wrote in Prometheus Bound, “Time, as he grows old, teaches many lessons.”
Baylor’s baseball team grew a year older and learned many lessons during the 2008 season. Now, the Bears hope to turn those lessons into success in 2009.
“As a team, the players see this as a very important year, and they see it as a statement year for themselves,” head coach Steve Smith said. “They were very disappointed by last year, and they have made a commitment to rebounding from that disappointment.”
Armed with its most seasoned roster since 2005, Baylor is no longer a young team with untapped potential. Instead, it is a veteran, experienced squad — but one whose potential remains untapped.
“This team is a very motivated group of guys; it is a very close group,” Smith said. “They have worked very hard both on and off the field in preparation for this season. The veterans have take their leadership roles very seriously.”
Eight position starters and four key pitchers return, and each figures to factor heavily on just how successful the Bears are in 2009.
Leading the way are a pair of junior All-America candidates in pitcher Kendal Volz and outfielder/pitcher Aaron Miller, each of whom showed signs of greatness in 2008 but failed to put together a season indicative of his potential. Volz and Miller will serve as team captains in 2009 along with junior catcher Gregg Glime and junior pitcher Willie Kempf.
Despite failing to receive an NCAA Tournament invite last season, the Bears open the 2009 season ranked 19th or better in each major ranking. In fact, each outlet has Baylor ranked higher than any other program that did not make an NCAA Regional appearance last year, evidence of the team’s potential.
Baylor returns five of six players who started at least 23 games on the infield last season. With only four infield spots, at least one of those five likely will have to make his home elsewhere in 2009.
The lone departed starter is Beamer Weems, who anchored the shortstop position for three years. Junior Raynor Campbell (.311, 4 HR, 26 RBI in 2008) is the leading candidate to fill Weems’ very large shoes.
Campbell, a 2007 Freshman All-America selection, started at third base as a freshman. He was slotted to be the Bears’ opening-day second baseman last year, but a thumb injury forced him to miss the season’s first three weeks. Upon return, he started 43 of the season’s remaining 44 games, splitting time between second and center with a couple starts at shortstop. A scrappy player, Campbell possesses a strong arm and better-than-decent range.
Despite missing 14 games, Campbell still ranked fourth on the team last year in batting average. He was hitless in his first 15 at bats but hit .342 the remainder of the season. Campbell was even stronger in Big 12 play, leading the team with a .354 average that ranked 11th in the league. In fact, he hit .417 in conference action after that 0-for-15 start.
Campbell will be flanked to the left by junior third baseman Shaver Hansen (.326, 6, 47), who moved to third last season after starting at second base as a freshman in 2007. Hansen led the team in several offensive categories last season, including batting average, RBI, runs (48), hits (72) and triples (6). He also shared the team lead in total bases (118) and ranked second on the team in extra-base hits (28), slugging percentage (.534), walks (32) and on base percentage (.413).
Not to be over-looked was Hansen’s solid defensive play at third base last season. He committed only 12 errors in 172 total chances, the fewest miscues of any player with at least 40 games started at the hot corner during Smith’s tenure at Baylor.
Hansen’s offensive and defensive prowess earned him the Thornton Sterling Award and a share of the Larry Isbell Baylor MVP Award. He also was the only third baseman to earn honorable mention All-Big 12 Conference honors.
Senior Adam Hornung (.320, 8, 43) and junior Dustin Dickerson (.313, 4, 43) split time at first base last season, garnering 33 and 24 starts, respectively. Dickerson is expected to be the opening-day starter. Hornung, meanwhile, remains in the mix at first base but more likely will see time in the outfield or at designated hitter.
Dickerson led the team with 17 doubles last season and ranked among the team leaders in most offensive categories. He also tied for the Big 12 lead and tied for 23rd nationally with seven sacrifice flies. However, Dickerson struggled offensively in Big 12 play, hitting .247 after hitting .373 in conference action as a freshman.
Hornung ranked second on the team in batting average, home runs, hits (71), last season; he also was third in total bases (109) and tied for third in RBI. While his average dipped to .280 in Big 12 play, Hornung led the team with six home runs in conference games.
Redshirt freshman Dan Evatt, who is coming off an outstanding fall, also will push for time at first base and is projected to be the Bears’ opening-day designated hitter. Evatt is a product of Grapevine [Texas] High School, where he earned all-state honors as a senior. He was a 45th-round draft selection of the Cleveland Indians in 2007.
Campbell’s injury opened the door for Landis Ware (.269, 2, 17) to start at second base as a true freshman in 2008. He finished the season with 40 starts at the position, giving way to Campbell late in the year. Ware had Baylor’s first hit of the 2008 season, a double in the season opener against Purdue, and broke a scoreless tie with a two-run homer in the game’s eighth inning.
Ware finds himself in the team’s most hotly contested position battle entering the season. He and true freshman Joey Hainsfurther entered preseason drills virtually neck-and-neck for the starting job, and each is likely to see plenty of action this season.
A product of Highland Park High School in Dallas, Texas, Hainsfurther was a two-time all-state and four-time all-district selection at the prep level, hitting .498 with 17 home runs as a senior. He led Highland Park to the regional quarterfinals last spring and was a 46th-round selection of the San Francisco Giants in last year’s Major League First-Year Player Draft.
Behind that sextet is fifth-year senior Drew Bias (.286, 0, 0), who has seen time at second and third during his career. Sophomore Jon Ringenberg (.277, 0, 9) also figures to be in the mix at designated hitter. Ringenberg saw limited action last season, and the coaching staff expects big things from the Indiana native.
Senior Ben Booker (.286, 7, 44) and Miller (.295, 12, 45) return in left and right field, respectively, and are the expected starters at those spots. Hornung also has a strong chance to land a corner outfield spot.
One of only three seniors on the 2009 squad, Booker was third on the team in RBI and tied for third on the team in home runs last spring. A plus runner, Booker led the Bears with 11 stolen bases last season and has 10 career triples. He joined Campbell as the only Bears to hit .300 in Big 12 play last season, going 27-for-90 with five doubles, two home runs and 14 RBI in league play.
Booker led the team with a .432 average with runners in scoring position in Big 12 games and was third on the team with 17 two-out RBI. After struggling to a .207 average through the first 24 games last year, Booker hit .345 over the season’s final two months. Baylor needs a solid start-to-finish season from Booker, who has been a slow starter offensively throughout his career.
Miller, who missed the entire fall after undergoing surgery on his right (non-throwing) shoulder last summer, was the Bears’ top power threat in 2008 and logic would say he will fill that role again this season. He led the team in home runs, extra-base hits (31), slugging percentage (.562), walks (34) and on base percentage (.425), and he tied for the team lead with 118 total bases. Miller also was hit by a pitch 15 times, leading the team and ranking fourth in Baylor history.
A projected high-round pick in next June’s draft, Miller became the first Baylor player to hit 10 or more home runs in a season since 2004 and the first underclassman to lead the team in homers since Chris Durbin in 2001. His homer total tied for ninth in the Big 12 and ranked second among the league’s underclassmen.
Miller had three multiple-homer games in 2008, including a night to remember against Illinois at the QTI Baylor Classic. That night, he was 5-for-5 with a double and six RBI, and he tied Baylor’s single-game record with three home runs. Miller was the fourth player in Baylor history to accomplish the feat and the first to do so since the NCAA implemented bat weight-ratio restrictions in 2000. He also became only the second player ever to hit three home runs in a game at Baylor Ballpark. Miller’s performance tied the Big 12 single-game record, a mark that was broken later in the season.
However, Miller also struggled at times, hitting .245 in Big 12 play and striking out 60 times over the course of the season. A more consistent offensive season from Miller could loom large for the Bears in 2009.
Redshirt freshman Brooks Pinckard likely will be the Bears’ starter in center. Pinckard, a product of Hays High School in Buda, Texas, is blessed with blinding speed and unlimited athletic potential. He was an All-Star selection in the Northwoods League last summer, hitting .298 with 11 doubles, three triples, two home runs, 29 RBI and 22 stolen bases.
Six Bears give the Bears depth behind those four in the outfield. Sophomore Chris Slater (.111, 0, 0) played 22 games with three starts but was primarily used as a pinch runner last season. Junior Kenton Gedwed (.000, 0, 0), redshirt freshman Don Lambert, and true freshmen Cal Towey and Lucas Hileman provide extensive depth.
Glime (.209, 0, 16) returns as the leader of the Bears’ catching corps after making 49 starts at the position last season. A switch-hitter, Glime struggled offensively in 2008 after hitting .263 in limited action as a freshman.
However, Glime remained solid defensively, committing only two errors in 410 total chances and throwing out 27.3 percent of would-be base-stealers. In Big 12 play, he made only one error and allowed only one passed ball in 210 chances.
While Glime has shown signs of offensive potential, including a 6-for-16 stretch midway through the 2008 season, it is his defense and his ability to handle the Bears’ pitchers that will prove his mettle.
Another hotly contested battle entering the season is at backup catcher. Senior Brooks Kimmey (.382, 2, 11) and true freshman Josh Ludy will vie for that spot.
Kimmey, who was productive in 20 games last season, was the Bears’ best bat off the bench in 2008 and seized his opportunity in nine starts. In his first career start, Kimmey walked four times, scored four times and homered in the nightcap of a doubleheader at Mississippi State. He also had a pinch-hit, game-tying, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth in the Nebraska series opener. Kimmey hit .346 with runners on base and .353 with runners in scoring position.
Ludy, a product of Jay County High School in Portland, Ind., hit .530 with 11 home runs as a senior last spring. He established school career records with a .460 average and 34 home runs.
Sophomores Andrew Cooley (.167, 0, 0) and Eric Udell (.000, 0, 0) return after each seeing limited action last season.
What the Bears lack in quantity as far as returning pitchers, they make up for in quality. Only four of nine pitchers who logged at least 15.0 innings of work last season return for the 2009 campaign. However, they were arguably four of the Bears’ five best arms last season.
Leading the way is Volz (3-6, 4.20 ERA, 85 K), who fills the Friday night role for the second consecutive season. Projected to go in the first 10 picks of June’s MLB draft, Volz established a Baylor record for starters, led the Big 12 and ranked 18th nationally with 10.83 strikeouts per nine innings last season. He also led Baylor and ranked sixth in the league in total strikeouts.
However, Volz, a right-hander, was thwarted by poor run support in 2008, averaging a staff-low 3.96 runs per start. Given the multitude of quality arms in the Big 12, he may not be able to expect much better support in 2009. That means Volz must sharpen a career .297 opponents’ batting average and avoid the one big inning, something that has plagued him during his Baylor career.
Still, Volz is by far the most seasoned pitcher on Baylor’s staff in several ways. He leads the staff with 26 career starts, 138.2 career innings and 150 career strikeouts after joining the Bears’ weekend rotation early in his freshman season. And his career 3.19 strikeout-to-walk ratio (150-to-47) is by far the staff’s best.
Volz also gained invaluable experience with the USA Baseball National Team last summer. Serving as the team’s closer, Volz posted a staff-best 0.00 ERA with eight saves in as many opportunities. He allowed only six hits and five walks with 16 strikeouts in 14.0 innings over 13 appearances with a .130 opponents’ batting average. He led Team USA to a 24-0 record and gold medals at Haarlem Baseball Week in the Netherlands and the FISU World University Championships in the Czech Republic, earning the save in both gold medal games.
Volz anchored the back end of a staff that established a National Team record 0.88 ERA. That staff defeated Cuba’s Olympic Team twice at Haarlem Baseball Week, holding the Cuban’s to one run in the two games, and Volz earned the save in both games. That same Cuba team defeated the U.S. Olympic Team twice in Beijing, scoring 15 runs in the two games.
At the end of the National Team’s tour, Baseball America named Volz the team’s third-best professional prospect.
Sophomore right-hander Shawn Tolleson (6-4, 5.06, 63) returns to the weekend after filling that role as a redshirt freshman in 2008. Also a projected high-round draft selection in June’s MLB draft, Tolleson led the Bears with 14 starts and 78.1 innings last season.
Much like Miller at the plate, it was feast or famine for Tolleson on the mound for much of his first Baylor season. He earned Big 12 Pitcher of the Week honors after tossing a two-hit shutout against 21st-ranked Oklahoma State in his first career Big 12 start. He also hurled a four-hit shutout with 12 strikeouts in the series finale at Kansas State. Tolleson joined Kyle Evans as the only Baylor pitchers to record multiple career shutouts in Big 12 play; both accomplished the feat in one season (Evans in 2000). He also became the first Baylor freshman to start and win at Texas since the inception of the Big 12 in 1997.
However, Tolleson also had his share of rough outings, allowing five-plus earned runs five times and failing to escape the first inning against Nebraska.
Still, Tolleson shared the staff lead in wins and ranked second in strikeouts and opponents’ batting average (.259). He became just the 10th Baylor freshman ever to win at least six games. He’ll look to avoid the sophomore curse as only one of the previous nine to accomplish that feat have won at least six games as a sophomore.
Another projected high-round draft pick, sophomore right-hander Craig Fritsch (3-4, 4.80, 49), is expected to be the Bears’ Sunday starter. Fritsch moved into that role late in the 2008 season after extensive work from the bullpen over the season’s first two months. He was third on the staff with 19 appearances last season, making four starts, and was second on the staff with three saves.
Fritsch showed signs of his potential several times in 2008. He established a Baylor single-game record with 10 strikeouts in relief during a midweek game against Sam Houston State. He also pitched well in a losing effort in the series finale at Texas, allowing two runs, one earned, on three hits over 5.0 innings.
The fourth well-seasoned arm returning for the Bears is Kempf (6-2, 3.69, 48). The versatile right-hander started the 2008 season as Baylor’s Sunday starter before moving to the closer’s role in late April. Kempf is slotted to be the Bears’ closer in 2009; however, he just as easily could return to the rotation if needed.
Kempf tied for the staff lead in wins last year and ranked 10th in the Big 12 in ERA. His .263 opponents’ batting average ranked third on the staff, as did his 68.1 innings. Kempf struggled with control at times in 2008, allowing 33 walks against 48 strikeouts.
Between the weekend rotation and Kempf is a smorgasbord of talented but mostly inexperienced arms.
True freshman right-hander Logan Verrett is the leading candidate for midweek starter duties and could even vie for a weekend rotation spot. According to Smith, Verrett has the best command of four pitches of any freshman pitcher during the skipper’s time at Baylor. Verrett led the nation in wins last spring in leading Corpus Christ-Calallen [Texas] High School to a Class 4A state title and No. 9 national ranking. He was a MaxPreps and Collegiate Baseball/Easton Sports All-American after going 18-0 with a 0.67 ERA and 167 strikeouts last year.
Ringenberg and true freshman right-hander Trent Blank are potential midweek starters, both of whom could move into the weekend rotation in time. Ringenberg returns to the mound this spring after being used only as a position player last year; he was 9-0 with a 1.31 ERA as a senior in high school. Blank posted a 19-5 career record with a 1.76 ERA at Columbia [Ill.] High School. The three-time all-conference selection led Columbia to the Illinois state title as a junior.
Ringenberg is one of three position players who should factor into the bullpen; the other two are Miller and Pinckard. A southpaw, Miller (1-1, 14.40, 8) made six appearances and tossed just 5.0 innings last season, but he likely will be called upon more in 2009. Pinckard made waves in the Northwoods League last summer with a lively fastball in the low 90s.
Several other pitchers are expected to see bullpen work in 2009. Right-handers include junior Reed Woytek (0-0, 9.88, 7), sophomore Tom Filip (0-0, 6.00, 3), redshirt freshman Ross Speed, and true freshmen Max Garner (Austin-Lake Travis [Texas]). A pair of southpaws round out Baylor’s bullpen: junior William Draper (0-0, 3.86, 0) and true freshman Kevin Winter (Arlington-Martin [Texas]).
Baylor faces another formidable schedule in 2009, playing 16 games against seven teams ranked in Baseball America’s Preseason Top 25. More than half the Bears’ games (27 of 52) are against teams who participated in the 2008 NCAA Tournament.
There are two luxuries, though; Baylor plays 32 home games, and the Bears leave the state of Texas only three times — for conference series at Kansas, Oklahoma State and Nebraska.
For the second consecutive season, Baylor opens with a three-game series at home. This time, the Bears host University of the Pacific Feb. 20-22. Now in its 11th season, Baylor Ballpark is expected to welcome its one millionth fan in 2009 as the facility drew more than 900,000 fans in its first decade.
The following weekend, Baylor makes its biennial trip to Minute Maid Park for the Houston College Classic. The Bears face three 2008 NCAA Tournament teams there in Houston, UCLA and Rice.
Baylor’s final non-conference weekend is at home, hosting the fourth-annual QTI Baylor Classic. This year, South Alabama, UC Irvine and UAB converge on Baylor Ballpark for the three-day event. UC Irvine reached the NCAA Super Regional round last season.
Big 12 play begins the next weekend, and the Bears open with defending conference champion Texas A&M. The traditional split-series starts March 13 at Baylor Ballpark and shifts to College Station for the final two games. Baylor’s split-series against Texas is May 1-3, opening at Austin before moving to Waco for the final two games.
Other home Big 12 series for the Bears are Texas Tech (March 20-22), Kansas State (March 27-29), Missouri (April 10-12) and Oklahoma (April 24-26). Baylor’s road Big 12 series are Kansas (April 3-5), Oklahoma State (April 17-19) and Nebraska (May 15-17).
For the second consecutive season, Baylor and Texas will play a non-conference midweek game. This year, the game is played Wednesday, March 11, at UFCU Disch-Falk Field in Austin.
With that being the case, the Bears face a tough 17-day stretch from Feb. 27 through March 15. Baylor plays nine of 11 games in that span against 2008 NCAA Tournament teams, including seven games against teams ranked 12th or better to start the season.
The 13th-annual Big 12 Championship returns to Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City May 20-24.