Pitching leads red-hot Bears into weekend tilt with Kansas

Freshman outfielder Davion Downey awaits the pitch in an at bat against Sam Houston state on March 13. Jessica Hubble | Multimedia Editor

By Max Calderone | Sports Writer

After a big road win Tuesday night at Dallas Baptist University, the Baylor baseball team has won eight of its last 10 games.

This weekend, Baylor (11-7) will square off with Kansas (13-7) in another important conference series at Baylor Ballpark.

Sophomore left-handed pitcher Cody Bradford (3-1, 1.89) and sophomore righty Hayden Kettler (2-2, 2.03) have led the Bears to a Big 12 best 2.89 team ERA. Head coach Steve Rodriguez said the dynamic pitching has been a big reason for Baylor’s recent success.

“The pitching staff has been huge, there is no doubt about it,” Rodriguez said. “Holding teams to less than three runs per game gives your offense a pretty good chance to get some runs.”

The Bears put up 12 runs on Saturday against Texas Tech, a big momentum boost for a lineup that had been struggling early on. Junior second baseman Josh Bissonette homered in each of Baylor’s last two games, tying him for the team lead, and sophomore first baseman Andy Thomas picked up eight hits in the last three games, raising his batting average to a team-leading .426.

Redshirt junior outfielder Richard Cunningham said it’s been great to watch the team get on a roll and attributes much of that to the guys on the mound.

“The team is really starting to put it together,” Cunningham said. “You’ve got to give so much credit to our pitching staff, they’re doing a phenomenal job giving us unbelievable starts and taking the pressure off the offense to produce.”

Bradford will take the hill in tonight’s first game of the three-game weekend set. He went 8 2/3 innings last Friday against No. 11 Texas Tech, allowing just six hits and striking out seven in Baylor’s 2-0 win.

“I think that’s probably the best I’ve ever pitched,” Bradford said. “My parents were sure proud of me. That was a really special night that I’ll remember for a long time.”

The Bears have also gotten recent contributions from senior closer Troy Montemayor, who has yet to allow an earned run this season, and redshirt senior Alex Phillips, who threw three innings of scoreless ball in two appearances in his return to action after an elbow injury sidelined him for the first part of the season.

Cunningham said it was relieving to have one of the team’s vocal leaders get back on the field and perform at the level he did against two of the best teams in collegiate baseball.

“It’s unbelievably comforting from a team standpoint when one of your veterans goes out there and does what he’s capable of,” Cunningham said of Phillips.

Kansas comes to Waco after having lost four of its last five games, including being swept by Texas. Rodriguez said the Jayhawks will be solid on the mound and that the key for his team is to simply play solid baseball all weekend long.

“Kansas has a pretty talented pitching staff,” Rodriguez said. “We really have to force them to play defense. We’ve got to make sure we minimize the top part of their lineup and try to get as deep into their bullpen as we can early, because that staff is pretty good. We just have to make sure that we’re prepared everyday and making sure we’re playing good baseball from the first pitch to the last.”

The Jayhawks are led by sophomore right-hander Ryan Zeferjahn (3-1, 3.25) and junior closer Zack Leban who has already picked up nine saves so far in 2018.

Phillips said it will be important for his team to bring the same mentality as before and not take Kansas for granted.

“You cannot get complacent, just because you’ve had success for a couple of weeks. All of these series are big,” Phillips said. “Kansas is a really good team. Their pitching is really good. All these teams in Big 12 are really good teams and you have to come prepared every week.”

The first pitch is scheduled for 6:35 p.m. tonight at Baylor Ballpark. The Bears will be back on the diamond at 2:05 p.m. tomorrow and 1:05 p.m. on Sunday to round out the weekend’s slate of action.