By Chris Derrett
Baylor baseball continues its 14-game homestand as it battles Kansas State this weekend in the Bears’ second conference series of the season. Coach Steve Smith said he hopes to see more of what has brought the Bears to a 14-7 record.
“I picked them [Kansas State] to be in the top two or three in the league because they had so many guys coming back,” Smith said. “They got a tough draw to start the league going to Austin last weekend, and clearly they could have won all three games.”
Kansas State began Big 12 play last weekend at No. 5 ranked Texas, getting swept but playing all three games close. Twice the teams went to extra innings, with the Longhorns winning, 4-3, in 10 innings on Saturday and again, 6-5, in a 14-inning contest Sunday.
The Wildcats’ plate discipline and solid pitching has led to a Big 12 leading +54 strikeout ratio.
Baylor’s projected starting rotation features junior Logan Verrett for a 6:30 p.m. first pitch on Friday, sophomore Josh Turley at 3 p.m. Saturday and junior Trent Blank getting the nod at 1 p.m. Sunday.
The Bears are 1-2 in Big 12 play, dropping two of three games to Texas Tech last weekend. Smith’s team looks to build on the momentum from a 6-1 win Tuesday over UT Arlington.
“I think we came out, swung it all right, pitched it really well, played defense, and I think guys were in it. So that was positive to see,” junior Joey Hainsfurther said.
In addition to the competition, Baylor will have to overcome its own trouble with a hamstring injury to sophomore left fielder Logan Vick. Vick, who is hitting .259 and has 13 RBI, was hurt in Sunday’s loss to Texas Tech.
Smith said sophomore Cal Towey will likely join the starting lineup. Like last year in which he started 1 for 24, Towey is off to a slow start in 2011, hitting just 4 for 28. But he finished 2010 at .314 and hit .395 over his last 29 games of the season.
In the batting order, sophomore infielder Steve DalPorto is expected to move from ninth to the two-hole. His goals remain the same, but his approach changes at the plate.
“As a nine-hole guy, you go up there looking for a lot of fastballs; they’re probably going to come at you more to try to get you out,” DalPorto said. “In the two-hole, there’s a little bit more off-speed. I don’t want to say more respect, but they’re trying to get you out a little bit more.”
DalPorto said, if need be, he is prepared to run more on the base paths. The Bears’ running game is off to a blazing start behind junior center fielder Brooks Pinckard’s 22 stolen bases on 24 attempts. The Bears had more stolen bases against Texas Tech (8) than all the other Big 12 teams combined last weekend (6).
“It’s a function of mainly experience,” Smith said. “We’ve had good athletes; we’ve had fast guys. Obviously Brooks is probably the biggest change in the whole deal, and it’s just him being able to take his tools and turn them into a skill.”
Towey will start in right field, and senior right fielder Chris Slater will shift to left. Things get more complicated, however, when Pinckard comes into the game to fulfill his usual role as the Bears’ closer.
“That’s kind of undecided. That one we’ve got to think about and look at what the options are,” Smith said.
When Pinckard moves to pitcher, the Bears will need another outfielder. Options Smith mentioned include junior Dan Evatt, a backup infielder, and simply not using Pinckard at all.
After surrendering only two hits and one run in his last 9.1 innings, sophomore Max Garner could be in the closer role before the season is over.
Regardless of who pitches in the late innings, Smith must see an improvement from last weekend, where the Bears gave up a combined 27 runs after the sixth inning in those three games.