By Max Calderone | Sports Writer
It was a long four years for the Baylor baseball team without an NCAA Tournament appearance between 2013-2016.
But in 2017, the Bears made it back to the postseason for the first time since 2012. With much of the core roster returning, Baylor hopes to build off last year’s success.
Third-year head coach Steve Rodriguez said he has been excited since August to get the new season underway.
“We have a lot of returning guys, which is really exciting. There’s just a few spots for us to fill in from last year,” Rodriguez said. “But the excitement started back in August.”
When players returned from their summer vacations, it was back to work, undergoing strength and conditioning programs. Some players gained as much as 20 pounds of muscle in preparation for the new season.
One of those players is sophomore left-handed pitcher Cody Bradford, who will be tabbed the ace of the pitching staff in 2018. He sported a 5.52 ERA last year, picking up five wins in over 73 innings of work. Bradford said he has gained up to 12 pounds over the offseason.
“I worked a lot in the offseason, putting on more weight,” Bradford said. “We all worked hard, we’re always out here improving our craft.”
Bradford’s battery mate and fellow sophomore will be catcher Shea Langeliers, one of the most highly-touted college players in the nation. Langeliers was named to four preseason All-American lists, becoming the first Baylor player in over 20 years to be honored by three or more publications.
After a breakout freshman campaign in which he hit .313 with 10 home runs and 38 RBI, Langeliers will look to live up to the surrounding hype. He is considered a top prospect for the 2019 MLB Draft by Perfect Game.
Langeliers said it’s an honor to garner such attention, but wants the media to focus on his team, too.
“Just being a big team guy this year,” Langeliers said of his expectations for himself. “We’ve been getting after it all fall and all spring in the weight room and on the field, so the big expectation is just to go further than we did last year.”
Baylor was eliminated from the 2017 Houston Regional after dropping two games to Texas A&M and Houston. But with key players like Bradford, Langeliers and preseason All-American senior closer Troy Montemayor returning, the expectation is to pick up right where they left off.
“Now that we have that experience and the leadership, we just have to finish,” Montemayor said.
One of the best finishers in the nation, Montemayor racked up 12 saves last season in addition to a team-best 2.10 ERA. He will anchor a strong Baylor bullpen that includes senior set-up men Joe Heineman and Drew Robertson. Sophomore lefty Ryan Leckich will also take on an increased role after appearing in just seven games in 2018.
Also on the mound, sophomore righty Hayden Kettler, junior Kyle Hill and sophomore transfer Jacob Ashkinos are all expected to have a shot at making the weekend rotation. Rodriguez said the competition was exactly what he hoped to see in the fall.
“They did exactly what they’re supposed to do. They came out, they competed, they’ve really transformed their bodies to look like professional pitchers,” Rodriguez said of the trio. “It’s a good problem for a coach to have. It means I get to use all of them, which is great.”
Senior right-hander Alex Phillips will be another name in the mix of pitchers. He gave the Bears a 4-3 record in eight starts in his first season back from an arm injury.
New to Big 12 baseball this year will be the addition of two 15-second pitch clocks that will be installed at Baylor Ballpark. With no runners on base, pitchers will have 15 seconds to begin their windup, otherwise a ball will be called. If the batter is not in the batter’s box inside the allotted time, a strike will be called.
Though the pitching staff will be a strength for Baylor this season, it is the wealth of returning position players that will provide depth and experience for Rodriguez’s team.
“We’ve got some names in our lineup that people look at and have to go ‘Oh my Lord’,” said fourth-year junior outfielder Richard Cunningham on the Lariat’s sports podcast “Don’t Feed The Bears.””You’ve got Shea Langeliers, you’ve got Davis Wendzel, you’ve got All-American closer Troy Montemayor. You look at our lineup and say ‘that’s someone we do not want to run into’.”
Wendzel, a sophomore third baseman, had a terrific second-half of the 2017 season, boosting his total batting average to .301 and hitting eight home runs along the way. The power-packing duo of Wendzel and Langeliers will be a force in the middle of Baylor’s lineup.
The Bears also boast an athletic outfield that brings back two of their three starters in Cunningham and junior T.J. Raguse, providing speed and a knack for getting on base to the top of the batting order. The pair combined for nine stolen bases last year. McLennan Community College transfer Cole Haring will also see action in the outfield for Baylor.
Up the middle, junior second baseman Josh Bissonette flashes a talented glove in a smooth defensive unit with senior shortstop Tucker Cascadden and freshman Nick Loftin, who is projected to contribute right away.
“I think he has an opportunity to come in and do something real special,” Rodriguez said of Loftin. “He’s a freshman who I really have high hopes for.”
Also back this year is senior outfielder Levi Gilcrease, mostly used as a defensive replacement in late-game situations in 2017 thanks to his cannon for an arm.
Baylor will face a tough schedule in 2018 that includes road trips to UCLA, Memphis and a packed Frisco College Classic tournament that features games against California, Texas A&M and Louisiana Tech.
The Bears get to play Big 12 favorites Texas Tech and TCU at home this year, but will travel to take on Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., and Texas in Austin.
Due to travel complications, Baylor will no longer open with Purdue. The Bears will now open the new year with a three-game series against Houston Baptist this weekend in Waco. First pitches are scheduled for 6:35 p.m. on Friday, 3:05 p.m. on Saturday and 1:05 p.m. on Sunday.