By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor
Less than 24 hours after its thrilling 11-inning 6-5 victory over TCU to claim its first ever Big 12 Tournament championship, Baylor baseball learned its postseason path to Omaha, Neb. is long and difficult.
Baylor (36-19) earned the No. 2 seed in the Stanford regional, where it will meet the Cal-State Fullerton Titans (32-23), champions of the Big West Conference, who are making their 27th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Baylor head coach Steve Rodriguez said that at this point in the season, the seeding holds no real relevance because every team in the tournament is dangerous.
“We’re going to go and we’re going to play a top-quality team, obviously one of the top 16 teams in the country. Where they’re ranked, you have to go and play, it doesn’t really matter,” Rodriguez said. “If it’s one team or another, I’m just glad we’re going to a place where we have a chance to win. That’s the biggest thing is no matter where we went, the way we’re playing right now, I will put us up against anybody in the country.”
On the other side of the regional will be Stanford (44-10), the Pac-12 champions and the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament. The Cardinal will meet Wright State (39-15) of the Horizon League in the other matchup.
The Bears will make their second trip to California this season after playing a three-game series at UCLA back in February. With seven players hailing from the Golden State, redshirt junior Richard Cunningham said he hopes it will give the Bears a bit of home field advantage.
“California is kind of this team’s second home. We’re going to play the guys they know best. What a great privilege, we get to go play in beautiful California against great competition,” Cunningham said. “I think we’re going to have Baylor there in full force. We went there earlier this year, so it’s not a foreign experience for us.”
Rodriguez himself, who played and coached at Pepperdine for 12 seasons as well as pitching coach Jon Strauss, who played at Long Beach State have matched up with the Titans on many occasions over the years.
“Fullerton might be one of the winningest teams on the West Coast in the past 10 years. They have a tremendous club. Coach Vanhook has done an amazing job with them, they won the Big West,” Rodriguez said. “They were literally 50 miles from us at Pepperdine, so we would do home and homes with them all the time, we’ve been to their regional several times. So, very familiar with just the coaching staff and their facilities. So now we get to go to Stanford and play them there.”
Even though Rodriguez is familiar with the Titans and the Cardinal, he said he doesn’t see it as much of an advantage simply because he’s now three years removed from playing them on a semi-annual basis, so it’s back to the drawing board and relying on quality scouting reports to get his Bears ready for Friday.
“Haven’t known them or seen them for three years. I don’t know anything about them, so we have to get reports and start doing some research. It’s just like any other regional for us right now, it’s not like we have any familiarity with any of these guys,” Rodriguez said. “I just know the coaches, that’s just from past history. But, they’re good teams, they’re quality teams, they both won their respective leagues. So, we have to go out there and do our best.”
At this moment in time, Baylor is without question playing its best baseball.
Since April 10, the Bears have lost just three times, racking up 22 victories including going a perfect 4-0 in the Big 12 Tournament.
In Oklahoma City, Baylor knocked off Oklahoma twice, a team that swept them in Norman earlier in the year; Kansas, who took two of three from the Bears in Waco; and TCU, a desperate team playing to keep its postseason dreams alive.
Sophomore first baseman Andy Thomas, who drove in the game-tying run against TCU in the 11th and a California native, said the team’s confidence level is through the roof, but at the same time, it is ready to come back down and focus on the next task at hand.
We’re playing the best we’ve played all year, and we’re really excited to take on this regional and get after it. Every guy here knows what our potential is, so we’re ready to get after it,” Thomas said. “Our bus ride home yesterday was great, we had some fun on the bus, celebrated a little bit. But then we’ve got to come back down and get ready for regionals.”
The Stanford regional is no stranger to Cal-State Fullerton, as the Titans went there last year, beating the Cardinal twice in three days before taking out Big West rival Long Beach State in the Super Regionals and advancing to Omaha for the College World Series.
The Titans, like the Bears, enter playing some of their best baseball of the season. After getting off to a dismal 1-7 start, including being swept at Stanford to open the year, Cal-State Fullerton has won 13 of its last 16 games, including a sweep of UC-Irvine, who was second in the conference at the time, and series wins against second-place Cal-State Northridge and Long Beach State to end the season.
“Cal State Fullerton is a storied program. So you have to play anybody and beat anyone at their best,” Cunningham said. “Right now we know how to win, so regardless of what’s in the other dugout, we have to play Baylor baseball.”
Baylor was one of five Big 12 teams selected to play in the NCAA Tournament. Texas Tech earned the No. 8 national seed and will take on New Mexico State in the Lubbock regional. Big 12 regular season champion Texas earned the No. 13 national seed and will meet Texas Southern first in the Austin regional.
Oklahoma State earned a three-seed in the Deland, Fla. regional with No. 11 Stetson. The Cowboys square off with South Florida first. Lastly, Oklahoma also earned a three-seed in the Tallahassee, Fla. regional with No. 7 Florida State. The Sooners will battle Mississippi State in their opener.
The other national seeds were Florida (1), Oregon State (3), Ole Miss (4), Arkansas (5), North Carolina (6), Georgia (8), Clemson (10), East Carolina (12), Minnesota (14), Coastal Carolina (15) and NC State (16).
The winner of the Stanford regional will take on the winner from the Coastal Carolina regional in the Super Regionals.
But there’s only one team on Baylor’s mind right now and its preparation for the Titans begins now.
“We’re really excited. All four teams in the field are really good teams. So we’ve just got to play our best ball and come back with something,” Thomas said.
Baylor and Cal-State Fullerton kick off the Stanford regional at 4 p.m. Friday. The game will air on ESPN3 and is available to stream on the WatchESPN App.