By Chris Derrett
Baylor baseball coach Steve Smith likened the Bears’ NCAA tournament-opening game against California on Friday to Thursday’s NBA Finals matchup between Dallas and Miami.
But unlike the Heat, who blew a 15-point lead late in the game before losing, Baylor survived Cal’s late charge and held on for a 6-4 win.
“We did a little bit of the Heat. We just blinked a few times too many. [Cal] is not going to quit; nobody playing at this time of year is going to quit. Nobody,” Smith said.
Junior Logan Verrett got the win after tossing 7.1 innings and holding the Golden Bears to three runs on seven hits.
Cal grinded down a 6-0 deficit with a run in the seventh and three more in the eighth. With two runners on in the ninth, however, Cal’s leading hitter Tony Renda lazily flied out on a 3-0 count to end the game.
The Bears pounced on mistakes from Verrett’s counterpart, Cal starter Erik Johnson, and notched five singles in the first three innings as they built what proved to be an insurmountable lead.
Johnson’s troubles started in the first, when junior Brooks Pinckard drew a one-out walk, stole second and was later driven in by junior Josh Ludy’s single up the middle. Pinckard’s free pass was one of five Johnson surrendered on the afternoon.
Baylor scored again in the second, as sophomores Jake Miller and Logan Vick led off the inning with a walk and single. Sophomore Steve DalPorto bunted Miller to third and Vick to second, and a wild pitch from Johnson let Miller scored. Senior Landis Ware plated Vick with a single to right.
Fundamentally manufacturing runs by advancing runners was a welcome sight to Smith.
“The thing that’s most impressive to me about what we did offensively today is that we did it without Max Muncy,” Smith said. “If you’d told me going in that Muncy was going to leave the bases loaded twice and we were going to score six runs and win, I wouldn’t have believed that.”
Muncy’s team-high .526 slugging percentage has helped the Bears multiple times this season, but Muncy was just 1 for 4 Friday. Nonetheless, Baylor was able to effectively attack Johnson as a team.
Johnson was pulled in the third inning after issuing a one-out walk to Miller. Baylor continued its assault on reliever Logan Scott, though, and scored on three consecutive plate appearances. DalPorto first knocked an RBI-single to score Miller, Ware dropped a RBI-sacrifice bunt scoring Vick and sophomore Cal Towey singled for DalPorto’s run.
With a sizable lead, Verrett cruised and did not face more than four batters in an inning until the seventh. His defense backed him up numerous times, highlighted by a pair of Web Gem nominee, diving catches from Vick.
“That’s lot of the reason I was able to go seven and a third. The defense behind me today was spectacular,” Verrett said.
Cal finally got on the scoreboard in the seventh, as Marcus Semien belted a one-out triple and later scored on a groundout.
Cal continued its fight in the eighth, doing enough damage to get Verrett out of the game and pull within striking distance. Austin Booker and Tony Renda would be Verrett’s final batters, with Booker doubling and Renda then singling with one out.
Junior reliever Trent Blank could not keep either from scoring. Semien and Chad Bunting poked back-to-back singles, Bunting’s hit pulling Cal to within 6-3.
Devin Rodriguez looked to keep the inning alive before Towey and Ludy hooked up for the Bears’ defensive play of the game. Bunting was waved around and would have scored if not for Towey’s perfect throw from left field to Ludy, who bore the brunt of the collision with Bunting but held on for the out.
With the win Baylor advances to the winners’ bracket and will face the winner of tonight’s game between Rice and Alcorn State. The winners’ bracket game starts Saturday at 6 p.m.