By Daniel Hill
The Baylor Bears host Illinois this weekend for a three-game series. Illinois and Baylor will square off today at 6:35 p.m. and then Saturday the two teams will meet for a double-header. Game one on Saturday is at 2:05 p.m., and the back end of the double-header is scheduled to start at 6:35 p.m. at Baylor Ballpark.
After struggling at the start of the season, the Bears have turned it around and gained some momentum by winning five of their six games to give them a 7-6 record.
“Yeah, it felt good definitely to be over .500 and to grind it out,” senior third baseman Cal Towey said. “I feel like our last three games have been played pretty well, grinding out AB’s and counts. Pitchers have been throwing strikes.”
The Bears’ bullpen has been solid this season. When the Bears are leading after the sixth inning, they are 5-0.
As a team, the Bears pitching staff has a 4.42 ERA and are holding opponents to a .219 batting average.
“We have a lot of guys out in the bullpen and a lot of not heralded names, but we do have a lot of guys who contribute and perform and do their role,” junior left-handed pitcher Doug Ashby said. “That’s something [assistant] coach [Trevor] Mote works with us all on. He wants us all to be individuals. He doesn’t want cookie-cutter pitchers. My role is just to keep the ball down in the zone and to throw strikes so that’s what I was able to come out and do.”
Offensively, the Bears have benefited from timely hitting and positive plate appearances with a team batting average of .273. Senior right fielder Nathan Orf leads the team in batting average at .479. Orf and junior second baseman Lawton Langford are tied for the lead in runs scored with 10 runs each.
Illinois is an aggressive team on the base paths and boast a heavy pitching rotation of right-handed throwers.
“They are running a lot and we are going to see three right-handed starters,” Baylor head coach Steve Smith said. “They are running more than I would have expected a Big 10 team to do, with all due respect. No slight intended there.”
Last season’s Baylor squad relied on mashing the ball deep and hitting towering home runs. This year’s team relies more on contact and positive plate appearances to generate offense.
“It’s a very different team,” sophomore first baseman Duncan Wendel said. “It’s all contact hitters now except for Cal [Towey] and a couple of other hitters. It’s really just sticking with everybody’s approach of single, get a hit here and get a hit here. Instead of get the big hit here that’s the double or whatever. We’re just trying to be who we are.”
Baylor’s starting pitcher tonight will be junior right-handed pitcher Dillon Newman. Newman has a 1.62 ERA and is 2-0 in over sixteen innings of work.
For the first game on Saturday, senior right-handed pitcher Max Garner will take the mound for the Bears. Garner is 1-2 with a 2.79 ERA this season.
On the back end of Saturday’s double-header, Baylor’s starting pitcher will be sophomore right-hander Austin Stone. Stone has one loss on the season and a 6.43 ERA in seven innings of work this season.
“I think right now we’ve got two guys in Garner and Newman that have been pretty consistent, particularly Dillon,” Smith said. “I think Austin is going to be fine. I think Austin is just young and still trying to figure it out a little bit. The other guys are a little bit older and more savvy.”
Last season the Bears experience unprecedented success on the diamond. Smith believes this year’s team can duplicate that same level of success.
“I think we’ve played okay. I think offensively, we’re competing well at the plate,” Smith said. “I think on the mound, when we’ve gotten good starting pitching, that’s kind of set the tone for the whole game. I think there are still improvements to be made there. We’re what eleven, twelve, thirteen games into it? Honestly, we are not too far away from where we were a year ago at this same time. So hopefully we can continue to progress and get to where we were last year.”