After knocking off California and Rice to open up the Houston Regional last June, it wasn’t the finish that Baylor had envisioned. Needing just one more win to reach the Super Regional; the Bears fell to Cal in back-to-back games and were ousted from the NCAA tournament in heart-breaking fashion.
“When you lose one like we did, it’s tough,” said Baylor head coach Steve Smith. “Nearly every team ends their season on a loss but not all losses are created equal.”
Despite holding a 7-1 lead heading into the bottom of the sixth in a winner-take-all game against Cal, the Baylor surrendered a pair of runs in the sixth and eighth innings before giving up four runs in the bottom of the ninth and fell just one strike shy from clinching the Houston Regional.
“Moving forward, I think that whole experience to this point has been a very strong motivator,” said Smith, who has posted a 619-415-1 record in 17 seasons with the Bears. “Nothing extraordinary ever comes out of something just ordinary. Nobody wants to go through anything like that but it can produce something extraordinary and that is really what this year is about for us.
“The challenge is how committed are you going to be to your goals and the process. I think the game is a mental challenge and everybody will be tested this season.”
With 20 letterman and eight position starters returning, the Bears will be challenged early by a difficult non-conference schedule that opens up with eight-straight games against teams that made the NCAA tournament last season. The Bears will embark on a three-game road trip at 14th-ranked UCLA before returning home to face a solid UC Irvine club. In total, Baylor is schedule to play a total of 14 games against teams that are currently ranked in Baseball America’s preseason top 25 poll.
Throughout his tenure at Baylor, Smith has never backed away from challenging his team during the non-conference schedule. Smith maintains that a difficult schedule is not only rewarding for the student-athletes but that it helps the team prepare for a rigorous Big 12 slate that features three teams currently ranked in the top 20.
“I really believe that players want to have great experiences playing college baseball,” Smith explained. “You can have a great experience and you can schedule a lot of wins, although that is not as easy as it sounds, or you can have a great experience and play good teams.
“We don’t get to practice much with the schedule being compacted the way that it has been. To get better you have to play people that are going to force you by their own play to be very good at execution and good at the game. That is a lot of what drives our scheduling. We have to play at a high-level to be successful in this league and to be successful in the postseason.”
With the loss of four-year starter Landis Ware at shortstop, the Bears will shuffle their infield rotation to reflect Ware’s departure. However, one position that is not up for grabs is at first base where two-year starter Max Muncy is expected to be a significant contributor for Baylor this season.
After establishing a freshman-record 11 home runs in 2010, Muncy hit at a team-best .322 clip last season while tallying 73 hits, 10 doubles, three triples and nine home runs while driving in a team-high 44 runs. During Big 12 play, the left-handed slugger was even more impressive as he hit for a .349 average which was 78 points higher than his nearest teammate.
“Last season Muncy was one of the most improved guys offensively that I had been around in a long time,” said Smith. “He can hit for power and hit with two strikes and he was able to go the other way last season without all of the strikeouts. He became more of a pure and complete hitter. Those guys are not that common and they are very difficult to pitch to.”
Perhaps the most intriguing position battle that emerged during the fall was at second base. While incumbent junior starter Steve DalPorto started 50 games last season, sophomore Lawton Langford is battling for the starting position.
“I think DalPorto has gotten physically stronger which is going to help him offensively this season,” said Smith. “I thought Langford would do more for us last year than he did but maybe I was about a year ahead of the schedule on him. I think (Langford) has a chance to be helpful not only at second base but other positions too. I think the two of them are similar but they have some versatility too.”
Following a breakout sophomore campaign, six-foot-three junior Jake Miller is expected to move from third base and replace Ware as the starting shortstop. A native of Houston, Texas, Miller made 51 starts last season while posting a .299 batting average and a .412 slugging percentage. With a strong arm and solid range in the middle of the infield, Smith is encouraged at the prospect of Miller’s move to short.
“He has done a lot to develop himself physically over the last couple of years and he has a passion for the game that challenges other players,” said Smith. “The downside of putting Jake at short is that you don’t have Jake at third. He had a good arm and tools when he got here but he wore down. He is physically stronger and I see him just having matured in more of a complete way rather than in just one area.”
With Miller expected to make the move from third to short, junior Cal Towey is penciled in to make the move from the outfield to third base while being the early favorite to replace Brooks Pinckard at the top of the batting order.
Towey ranked second on the team last season with a .271 batting average in Big 12 play while ranking behind only Muncy with a .404 on-base percentage. Because of his discipline at the plate, Smith likes what Towey brings to the leadoff spot and is encouraged about the turnover in the lineup with a solid bat at the top of the order.
“I see him as a leader and I think he has matured a lot in that role,” said Smith. “There is probably not a guy on the team that is more respected by the other players than Towey. He is physically a grown man and his work-ethic leads the pack.
“He doesn’t look like a leadoff hitter but he has a high on-base percentage and he really likes to run. He is more experienced stealing bases and he gives us a pretty good guy at the top of the order. When you start turning over a lineup you have a guy coming back up there that the more times you get him coming to the plate, the better he is going to be.”
With the departure of Pinckard and impending move of Towey to third, Logan Vick returns as the outfielder with the most starting experience.
Following a freshman campaign in which he hit .329 with 10 home runs from the leadoff spot while drawing a school-record 59 walks, Vick’s numbers fell off significantly from his freshman All-American debut.
Hitting just .213 on the season with 37 hits and 18 RBI, Vick did prove to be a valuable defensive component in the outfield as he frequently made jaw-dropping plays.
Although he struggled with offensive setbacks last season, Vick rebounded and posted a .337 batting average for the Cotuit Kettleers in the pitcher-friendly Cape Cod Baseball League this past summer and carried that momentum into the fall.
“He can play anywhere in the outfield and he plays defense so hard in that he will do whatever he needs to do to make a catch,” says Smith of Vick, who is projected to be a middle of the order hitter. “He had a great summer and got his confidence back in the fall. Whether he is in front or behind Muncy, or whether or not you split those two up, he is in the upper-half of the lineup.”
While Vick has one outfield spot on lockdown, the other two spots are up for grabs with two freshmen emerging from the fall as potential starters.
“If the two freshmen (Logan Brown and Adam Toth) continue to come along, I think either of them could play corner outfield. I’m not adverse to playing Dan Evatt in left field and getting that bat in the lineup,” Smith explained. “All of this is assuming that Cal Towey is moved to third base; otherwise, he is a guy that could get moved back out there.”
Also vying for a slot in the outfield is six-foot-one freshman Michael Howard. As a dual-position lefty, Howard could potentially become an impact player both on the mound and on the field.
“He is kind of a wild card for me right now because he is – on paper – the blue-chip of the freshman,” said Smith. “In the fall he swung the bat pretty good and I protected is arm some because he came in here a little sore from the summer so we didn’t really get to see him full-tilt.
“Whether it is this year or it is a year from now, I think he could be a weekend starter for us. It may not be right away and he might have to grow into that role a little bit but that is up to him.”
While replacing third-round draft pick Logan Verrett and 10th-round selection Brooks Pinckard is no simple task, junior southpaw Josh Turley will likely anchor the Bears’ starting rotation this season.
Although he posted a 4-5 record last season, Turley was productive on the hill as he notched a 3.39 ERA with 63 strikeouts and just 19 walks in 95.2 innings of work. In the Houston Regional against ninth-ranked Rice, Turley fired the first complete game of his career as he allowed just one earned run while fanning seven batters and allowing seven hits on 135 pitches in the Bears’ 3-2 win.
“I think that if we were opening up this weekend Turley and Brand Kuntz would be in that rotation,” said Smith. “Kuntz is a guy that got a few innings last year but he has really developed. He really helped himself over the summer and came into the fall on a mission. His mission was to show us that he belonged on the weekend and he pitched with that intensity and purpose every time that he went out.”
In limited action last season, Kuntz posted a 4.12 ERA with 28 strikeouts and just seven walks in 24.0 innings of work. In the Northwoods League this summer, the six-foot-two lefty tallied a 4-1 record with a 2.66 ERA in 40.2 innings of work. The sophomore allowed 38 hits while fanning 45 batters and issuing 17 walks.
As for the final spot in the rotation, Smith contends that the Bears have several options to fill that role on the weekend. While he spent significant time as the closer last season, redshirt junior Max Garner could fill the final spot in the weekend arsenal as he recorded eight saves last season with a 3.12 ERA and 42 strikeouts to just 17 walks.
“He looks like he is on a mission and if you ask which role Max wants, he’ll tell you that he wants Friday night,” said Smith. “You define yourself by how you handle situations in a game. What he did last year against Texas when the game was coming unraveled was remarkable. I brought him in with the bases loaded and right out of the chute he throws a first-pitch, change that turns into a one-pitch, one-out, game-over situation.
“That said so much to me about that kid and his perspective. He came in and made a pitch that a lot of guys would be scared or reluctant to throw. That is really when he took off and he sold me at that moment. He might have to be in the back of the bullpen but I think he is preparing himself to be a starter.”
Although the weekend rotation is far from settled, Smith contends that the bullpen has multiple options that might feature several unfamiliar faces.
“What I hope will happen is that we will have several options on roles as starters and we’ll have options at the back of the bullpen,” said Smith. “I think those options will be – for the most part – almost complete unknowns to a lot of people and that will be okay. There may be some growing pains as they try and get comfortable and settled in, but we’ve got some capable guys and they’re extremely hard working.”
Despite limited innings on the mound over his career, senior Joey Hainsfurther appears to be the frontrunner in the back end of the bullpen for the Bears.
“He hasn’t had a lot of repetition on the field but I’ve seen him in the bullpen and he is very capable. His strongest asset is his competiveness and his fire,” said Smith.
Also competing for spots at the back of the pen are a pair of right-handed juniors in Kolt Browder and Miles Landry.
“I am anxious to see a guy like Miles Landry on the mound, which is one of the coolest stories that people don’t know yet,” said Smith of the six-foot-five, 240-pounder. “He is a guy that walked on here three or four years ago, who, at this point in his career at Baylor has thrown less than one full inning but will get an opportunity to play professional baseball. He has come on in the last year and really came on during the summer. It’ll be an experience for him.
“Browder has also made some big improvements from last year. Those guys aren’t going to be household names and when other teams see their names on the scouting report they’re not going to shake in their boots but
I really think they have the ability and the heart to get it done.”
With Hainsfurther projected to come out of the bullpen and occasionally see time in the lineup as the designated hitter, Ludy and five-foot-nine redshirt junior, Nathan Orf, are expected to share time at the backstop. Orf, a transfer from Illinois-Chicago, was a 2009 Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America honoree and posted a .436 on-base percentage as a sophomore.
“We won’t lose a lot from a defensive standpoint either way,” said Smith. “Ludy is one of our better hitters and he is almost a little bit like the right-handed version of Muncy. He has pretty good pop and is becoming a better two-strike hitter that can go the other way. He is a competitor at the plate, a veteran and has had a lot of at-bats to get better.
“I think Nate has a chance to be a spark for us. He plays the game at a fast pace and plays with a lot of energy. He is a leader and I think he is pretty gifted behind the plate. He is very comfortable hitting the ball to right field and that is not something that most of our right-handers are comfortable with.”
1) At the end of the fall, Smith moved assistant coach Trevor Mote into some of the day-to-day duties with the pitching staff to provide, “a second voice and a different perspective.” Smith feels confident in Mote’s abilities and believes that he is going to have a positive impact on the Bears’ pitching staff.
2) Coach Smith’s son, Ryan, is a freshman pitcher and infielder at Baylor this season. Smith says that he can’t treat Ryan like he’s not his son, rather, “I’m going to have to treat the rest of the team like Ryan. I think it’d dishonest if I say I’m going to treat my son like he’s not my son. That’s my intention and it really changes my dynamic with all of the players in the right way.”
3) Of the nine newcomers, Smith believes that the Adam Toth had, “the best fall out of any of the true freshman on the field.”
4) Although Texas A&M is slated to move to the SEC next season, Smith maintains that he would like to continue the rivalry with the Aggies on the diamond.