By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor
A few years ago, while growing up in San Clemente, Calif., just a 50-minute drive south of Cal-State Fullerton, Baylor sophomore third baseman Davis Wendzel had the Titans on his list of teams he wanted to play for.
And now, Wendzel and the rest of the Bears will square off with the Titans in the Stanford Calif. regional in their NCAA Tournament opener on Friday.
“Cal-State Fullerton was on my list for a long time. I ended up just wanted to get out of California and coming to Texas. Yea a lot of those schools were on my list early on,” Wendzel said. “I know a couple of guys on the team, so it will be fun to see them.”
Wendzel, one of seven Baylor players, who reign from the State of California, won’t be the only one who will square off with a team he once aspired to play for.
Junior second baseman, Josh Bissonette, of Anaheim Hills, Calif. who has brought a superb glove in the infield (.982 fielding percentage) and some extra pop in his bat this season (7 home runs, 37 RBIs), reiterated Wendzel’s message of wanting to play for a historic and proud baseball tradition in Cal-State Fullerton.
“This is a special opportunity for me. Growing up, I always wanted to go to Cal-State Fullerton. It was one of those schools where as a middle infielder, they produce the most middle infielders and so that was a place where I wanted to go,” Bissonette said. “But the fact that I get this opportunity to go back home and play against them in a regional, it’s super special. I’m looking forward to it.”
Despite the familiarity and respect for the Titans and the ties to California, when the Bears take the field Friday at Sunken Diamond, those feelings will dissipate and the focus turns to winning and advancing.
Winning will not come easy for anyone in the Stanford regional. The Cardinal, who went 44-10 in the regular season and won the Pac-12 conference, claimed the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament. Stanford plays, who some have called the “best” four seed in the tournament, Wright State (39-15), the Horizon League champions in its opener.
Baylor enters coming off an emotional 11-inning, 6-5 win against TCU to claim its first Big 12 Tournament title and Cal-State Fullerton (32-23), winners of the Big West conference, make their 27th straight postseason appearance and return a ton of experience from its team that went to the College World Series in 2017, a run that included sweeping Stanford in regional play.
Baylor head coach Steve Rodriguez, who played and coached against Cal-State Fullerton while at Pepperdine, said the Titans are the epitome of west coast baseball and present a challenge because of their discipline and terrific coaching.
“Cal-State Fullerton is a pesky team. They do all the things—they play good defense, they pitch well, they’re pesky on the bases. They do all those little things and will force you to make mistakes,” Rodriguez said.
The Titans hit .271 as a team, but rely heavily upon moving base-runners and disciplined approaches at the plate, resulting in just 11 home runs, a stark contrast from Baylor’s 52, 114 extra base hits, including 86 doubles and 60 sacrifice hits.
Cal-State Fullerton is led by First Team All Big West selection, junior infielder Hank LoForte, who is hitting .341 with six triples, 33 runs driven in and leads the team with 38 runs scored.
Sophomore catcher Daniel Cope leads the team in both home runs and RBIs, leaving the yard five times while driving in 40 runs and hitting a respectable .286.
With a 2.26 ERA, Eastman has been a magician on the mound, keeping opposing offense off balance, striking out 108 batters while allowing just 26 walks. He’s won five of his last six starts, including allowing two hits in five innings against rival Long Beach State on May 24.
But Baylor will counter Eastman with its own workhouse Friday afternoon in the form of the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, sophomore southpaw Cody Bradford.
Bradford brings with him a 7-5 record and a 2.38 ERA in 90 2/3 innings on the mound. Bradford has been electric as of late, allowing just four earned runs over his last five starts, while recording three double-digit strikeout performances and back-to-back complete game shutouts.
Bradford struck out 11 while allowing just four hits in 7 2 /3 inning in a 4-0 win over Oklahoma in the Big 12 Tournament opener.
“That’s why he’s the pitcher of the year in the Big 12. He went out there and did exactly what was needed for our team to get the team going in the tournament,” Rodriguez said. “He’s just done a phenomenal job. He’s had some bumps and bruises along the way, but because he’s such an intelligent young man, he has learned from every one of those.”
Bradford’s partner behind the plate, sophomore and First Team All Big 12 selection, Shea Langeliers. Although the average is down at .247, his bat has delivered when his team has needed it.
Langeliers leads the Bears with 10 home runs and is second with 43 runs driven in, none more than important than his walk-off single against TCU.
But perhaps more important than his bat has been his work behind the plate, managing the pitching staff and warning base runners to steal at their own risk. Langeliers has allowed just 10 stolen bases this year while throwing out 23 runners.
“Shea is awesome, he’s one of the best catcher in the nation, so it’s fun to watch him throw people out by 25 feet or something like that,” Wendzel said.
Baylor, who is making its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance, hopes to learn from its mistakes from 2017. The Bears went 0-2 with losses to Texas A&M and Houston in the Houston regional.
“We had a great opportunity, we just weren’t able to close it out,” Bissonette said. “This year I think we are a better finishing team. So if we take the lead early, we can rely on our pitchers. I’m pretty confident going into this field.”
This confidence has been on full display as the Bears have won 22 of their last 25 games and it’s that confidence and freedom that Rodriguez believes can take this team a long way.
“We just need to continue to play well and focus on who we are and what we do, understand what they do well, and try to defend it the best we can,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a different mentality with these guys and I’m pretty excited to see where it takes them.”
Baylor (36-19) and Cal-State Fullerton (32-23) will open the Stanford regional at 4 p.m. and will air on ESPN3 and is available to stream on the WatchESPN app.
Stanford and Wright State will play the nightcap at 9 p.m. and will air on ESPN2.