By DJ Ramirez | Sports Writer
Baseball season starts on Feb. 15 and the Baylor baseball team hit the field on Friday afternoon for the first official practice of the year. Even though the Bears have been preparing since August, senior outfielder Richard Cunningham said the start of a new season is something special.
“If you don’t get excited about today, then we have to check your pulse,” Cunningham said.
Baylor returns their entire starting lineup to the field, as well as their starting weekend rotation, but with seven freshmen and three transfers, there will be plenty of competition for playing time. Head coach Steve Rodriguez said he believes the competition will only drive his players to improve.
“I think there’s competition for everybody, which is great, even for our returning guys,” Rodriguez said. “Regardless if you have played a lot in the past, I think everybody is still fighting for a spot and to create their own niche.”
With the departure of a veteran bullpen, which was composed of senior relievers Alex Phillips, Drew Robertson, Joe Heineman and closer Troy Montemayor, the question remains as to who will replace them.
The Bears have a lot of strong options as most of the newcomers are pitchers, including junior transfers Logan Freeman and Paul Dickens. Freeman made 11 starts in 14 appearances as a sophomore with the McLennan Highlanders and aided them in reaching the JUCO World Series as a freshman, while Dickens recorded 92 strikeouts in 65.1 innings pitched as a sophomore at Navarro Junior College.
Even with all the new arms that the team has acquired, that does not mean there is a lack of depth or experience in the pitching staff. Among some of the notable returning pitchers are senior right hander Kyle Hill and junior lefty Ryan Leckich. Hill appeared in 25 games in the 2018 season, holding opponents to a career-best .185 batting average. Leckich had 10 scoreless outings and 11 appearances with one hit or less allowed out of the 20 appearances he made as a sophomore.
Opponents could also see pitching from sophomore shortstop Nick Loftin, who is coming off an outstanding freshman campaign after receiving a unanimous Big 12 All-Freshman Team selection. Rodriguez said he thinks Loftin will make an appearance on the mound this season, but that it’s important not to overuse his athletic ability.
“I think he will pitch some, absolutely. He’s one of our best arms. He’s a very talented athlete,” Rodriguez said. “I just think as coaches we have to do our job making sure that we don’t kind of overshoot all the bullets at once. We got to make sure we take care of him as a player, and his arm and health, and so we’re going to use him sparingly when we have to, but still be able to maximize his talent.”
The starting rotation will see junior left hander and reigning Big 12 Pitcher of the Year Cody Bradford back in his usual Friday spot while junior Hayden Kettler will return as the Saturday starter and sophomore Tyler Thomas will close it off on Sunday.
Returning to the lineup along with Loftin and Cunningham are junior catcher Shea Langeliers, junior first baseman Andy Thomas, senior second baseman Josh Bissonette, junior third baseman Davis Wendzel, sophomore outfielder Davion Downey and senior outfielders Cole Haring and T.J. Raguse. It’s a lineup with a lot of impact, which according to Cunningham, only “fuels competition.”
“What’s exciting is if one of those youngsters or JUCO guys, or new guys, cracks the lineup that means we’re going to be really good because they replaced a really good ballplayer,” Cunningham said.
The 2018 season saw the Bears win a Big 12 Championship Tournament for the first time in program history, which clinched their spot in the NCAA Stanford regional. For Langeliers, the only way to handle the expectations is for the Bears to go out and play their “best baseball every day.”
“Everybody in the Big 12 knows who we are and know each individual player. They’re going to have a little bit more of a better game plan on us this year but we’re going to be ready for it obviously,” Langeliers said. “We’re definitely prepared. … The road to Omaha started a long time ago.”
The Bears open the season against Holy Cross at 6:35 p.m. Feb. 15 at Baylor Ballpark.