Bears firing on all cylinders in the early season

Baylor sophomore pitcher Hayden Kettler winds up for a pitch against Cornell on Friday at Baylor Ballpark. Kettler pitched six innings, allowing zero runs and striking out nine batters. Shae Koharski | Multimedia Journalist

By DJ Ramirez | Sports Writer

With back-to-back sweeps to open up the season, Baylor baseball is threatening from all sides by doing all the little things right. Hot bats and strong pitching combined with smart base-running and defense have the Bears on an early win streak.

Baylor has had to face some early challenges due to health and injury, with junior catcher Shea Langeliers sitting out for a few weeks and junior first baseman Andy Thomas out sick. But their “next-man-up” mentality and the way they battled through tough weather to get comeback wins in the doubleheader against Holy Cross, have shown that they’re prepared to fight their way to the College World Series.

Setting the tone for Baylor on the mound is junior right-hander Hayden Kettler, who currently sports a 0.00 ERA and has 17 strikeouts, with a career-high nine strikeouts in the opener against Cornell. The Friday starter has done a great job at getting ahead of hitters and extending his pitch count largely due to a four-pitch arsenal. Against the Big Red, Kettler was able to throw every one of his pitches for strikes, commanding his fastball to get ahead of batters and his off-speed stuff to keep them off balance on both sides of the plate. According to Kettler, aside from working on mastering each of his pitches, one of the things that helped him prepare was having to face the Bears’ lineup during the offseason.

“I’ve had to go through this whole fall facing our lineup and it’s really polished me,” Kettler said. “It’s made me know that I can’t make mistakes and so I’m able to carry that into the regular season and face lineups that I’d argue aren’t as powerful as ours.”

That powerful lineup is slugging .560 and holds a .370 batting average going into the third week of the season. Baylor has seven home runs so far, five of those hit against Cornell, two off the bat of senior center fielder Cole Haring, but has also been able to drive some down the line and up the middle for extra bases. The Bears have 22 doubles and three triples out of 95 hits and 64 of their 73 runs were RBIs.

But just as important as the starting pitching and offense have been, it’s the little things that Baylor has been doing that add to their threat. The team holds a .973 fielding average and has turned 11 double plays. While there have been a couple of errors in the middle infield, senior second baseman Josh Bissonette, Loftin and Wendzel have been executing great plays to keep opponents off the bases.

The Bears are also 12-for-14 in stolen bases with junior third baseman Davis Wendzel at 5-for-5 and sophomore shortstop Nick Loftin right behind him at 3-for-3. Head coach Steve Rodriguez said that he’s been happy about what he’s seen from the team in terms of base-running.

“That’s something we really enforce, making sure we don’t make foolish mistakes on the base paths, being able to take extra bases when we have an opportunity. Reading ball and dirt is a really big emphasis that we take in regards to our practices,” Rodriguez said. “They’re doing a phenomenal job at it and we need to keep it up.”

The bullpen has also had an impact in Baylor’s victories. Coming into the year, the team knew they had lots of talented new arms they were waiting to test out. Several of them have come in to complete shutout innings, including freshmen Ryan Segner and Blake Helton and sophomores Daniel Caruso and Wil Gilbert. Juniors Kyle Boyd and Ryan Leckich have gotten the Bears out of some sticky situations as well. Boyd holds nine strikeouts in four innings of relief, and Leckich currently has a WHIP of .24. Even Loftin made an appearance last week against Holy Cross and managed to close out the game with a foul out, a strikeout and a groundout to second.

Freshman righty Anderson Needham has also been impressive on the mound, making a start in the closing game of the opening weekend and a relief appearance in the closing game of the Cornell sweep. Needham pitched four complete innings in each game with a total of 12 strikeouts but seemed to struggle in completing his fifth inning in both cases. Freshman backstop Kyle Harper said the team is confident in what Needham can do.

“You know he’s young. The fact that he’s got so much stuff that looks so good and it’s maybe just a little bit of that stamina that’s slowing down towards the fifth inning, certainly not a mentality thing,” Harper said. “The guy’s got a great mentality on the mound, striking everybody out and he looks really good, so we’re confident in what he can do.”

Baylor hopes to keep its momentum going against Dallas Baptist at 6:35 p.m. today and will then travel to Houston this weekend to compete in the 2019 Shriners Hospital for Children Classic at Minute Maid Park, where it will face Texas A&M, Rice and Texas State.