By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor
For the first time since 2012, Baylor baseball has reached the NCAA Tournament.
Despite dropping their final four games of the season, including being swept out of the Big 12 Conference Tournament in Oklahoma City, Baylor received an at large bid into field of 64.
According to Baylor head coach Steve Rodriguez, who will be coaching his ninth career regional, playing in the postseason is one of the most unique and special opportunities in all of sports.
“I’m really happy for our seniors,” Rodriguez said. “Just to have an opportunity to finish their careers going into a regional. That’s one of the biggest things for me, is to have any player that participates in college baseball have the opportunity to play in a regional.”
The Bears received the No. 2 seed in the Houston Regional. Joining Baylor in the regional are No.1 Houston, No. 3 Texas A&M and No. 4 Iowa.
For Baylor senior designated hitter Matt Menard, this opportunity has been a long time in the making.
“For our seniors, we’ve been waiting four years for this,” Menard said. “This is the culmination of a lot of hard work, dedication and passion. So it’s so exciting for all of us.”
Baylor has made a drastic turnaround in head coach Steve Rodriguez’s second season in Waco. After a 24-29 campaign in 2016, the Bears finished the regular season 34-21, including a 9-0 record to start the season. Baylor also finished .500 in Big 12 play at 12-12.
One of the reasons for the improvement as been the increase in offensive production, led by senior first baseman Aaron Dodson and freshman catcher Shea Langeliers, who co-lead the team in home runs with 10 apiece and 38 RBIs each. Fellow freshman third baseman Davis Wendzel has contributed eight home runs and 29 RBIs and junior outfielder Kameron Esthay has hit nine with 35 driven in.
Senior righty Nick Lewis has been the game one starter all season but has struggled lately lasting just two innings against Kansas State and one against West Virginia in his last two starts. Junior transfer Montana Parsons has been the bright spot in the starting rotation for the Bears, posting a 5-3 record with a 2.81 ERA 67 strikeouts in 83 1/3 innings this season.
The Bears also boast perhaps the best closer in the country in junior Troy Montemayor. In 25 innings of work, Montemayor is 3-1 with a 1.08 ERA and is 12/12 in save opportunities with 28 strikeouts opposed to just seven walks and four runs allowed. Opponents are batting a mere .167 against him this season.
Rodriguez will need his offense to continue to score runs at a high rate like it has all season (6.1 runs/gm) but more importantly, the pitching will have to be at its best for Baylor to find continued success in the tournament.
Up first for Baylor will be the No. 3 Texas A&M Aggies. The two teams met once already this season which resulted in a 6-3 win for the Bears in the final game of the Shriner’s Children Hospital Classic played at Minute Maid Field on March 5. Baylor trailed all the way until the final at bat when junior shortstop Tucker Cascadden sent the Baylor faithful into a frenzy by launching a walk-off grand slam home run to left field.
The Aggies (36-21, 16-14) would love an opportunity for revenge against the Bears. Texas A&M finished fifth in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) West division and are entering the tournament on a slide of its own, dropping eight of their last 10 games, including being eliminated in the opening round of the SEC tournament 12-7 to Missouri.
The Aggies are led offensively by freshman infielder Braden Shewmake, who leads the team in all major categories, including average (.343), hits (80), home runs (10) and RBIs (64).
Texas A&M has a number of effective arms on the mound at which to throw during regional play, including junior left-hander Kaylor Chafin, who leads the team with a 7-1 record and a 1.99 earned run average (ERA). Junior Brigham Hill (7-3, 2.96), junior Corbin Martin (6-3, 3.03) and sophomore Stephen Kolek (3-3, 3.46) are all capable starters that the Bears could end up facing in regionals.
Houston tied for the top of the standings in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) and has won its last six contests entering regionals, including winning the AAC Conference Tournament.
The Cougars have a very good 1-2 left-handed combo on the mound with sophomore Trey Cumbie and senior John King. Cumbie boasts a 10-1 record with a 1.88 ERA with four complete games. King is 7-1 with a 2.99 ERA and three complete games.
At the plate, the offense starts at the top with junior catcher Connor Wong. He is fifth on the team in batting average, hitting .297 on the year, but has 11 home runs, 34 runs driven in and is 25 for 29 in stolen bases from the leadoff spot. The power of the Cougars’ lineup comes from junior infielder and 2017 AAC Player of the Year Jake Scheiner, hitting a cool .347 with 17 home runs and 57 RBIs to go along with a team-high 18 doubles.
Iowa enters having won eight of its last 10 games and having gone 4-1 while winning the Big 10 tournament.
Offensively, the brunt of the workload falls on junior first baseman Jake Adams, who leads the team with 27 home runs and 70 runs driven in. Sophomore outfielder Robert Neustrom has also been a threat for the Hawkeyes at the plate, hitting .313 with nine home runs and 54 RBIs.
On the mound, junior right hander Nick Gallagher has led the way for Iowa, posting an 8-1 record and a 3.39 ERA in 15 starts.
If Baylor and Houston are able to advance as the higher seeds, the two schools would meet for a fourth time this season. The Bears took two out of three from the Cougars at Baylor Ballpark in April.
With the exception of Iowa, there isn’t too much unfamiliarity between the schools, something that Rodriguez said has its advantages and disadvantages.
“We have to make sure of what we learned from each one of those games and those teams in making sure we know what we are doing as a team in regards to offense, defense and our pitching,” Rodriguez said. “It’s nice to be familiar with teams but at the same time, they’re familiar with you as well.”