Baseball opens Big 12 play with weekend series against West Virginia

Baylor junior pitcher Ryan Leckich winds up for a pitch against Dallas Baptist on Feb. 26 at Baylor Ballpark. The Bears open Big 12 Conference play with a weekend series against West Virginia at Baylor Ballpark. Shae Koharski | Multimedia Journalist

By DJ Ramirez | Sports Writer

The 2018 Big 12 Tournament champion Baylor baseball team will open conference play this weekend at Baylor Ballpark against the West Virginia Mountaineers.

Head coach Steve Rodriguez said he feels the team has a good foundation to build on going forward.

“Once we start Big 12 play, that’s when championships are won. So for us, we’ve had I would consider a pretty successful non-conference play,” Rodriguez said. “I think we’ve had an opportunity to get a lot of guys in. We’ve had some injuries and we’ve had to deal with a few things. But from a bigger standpoint, I think we have a pretty good foundation to work with right now. I think our guys understand that and they realize the importance of this weekend as well.”

After a back-and-forth midweek loss to Sam Houston State, the Bears are looking for a strong start in Big 12 play with junior lefty Paul Dickens as the new Friday guy. Dickens, who pitched seven scoreless innings in his last start against Cal Poly, is currently eighth in strikeouts in the conference with 28 and sports a 2.88 ERA. Junior infielder Andy Thomas said that Dicken’s pitching will work great for throwing hitters off.

“Paul has a mix of all three pitches, even got a little slider that he throws not very often. He throws the downhill, and when he’s on, it’s really hard to hit,” Thomas said.

Sophomore Jimmy Winston, who leads the conference with a 0.93 ERA, will start on Saturday but the Sunday starter is still a mystery. According to Rodriguez, the coaching staff will decide who starts the rubber match depending on the results of the first two games.

Baylor, who was voted second in the Big 12 preseason coaches’ poll, currently sits in fourth place in the conference with an overall 13-6 record and a .684 winning percentage. The Bears were ranked at No. 26 by Collegiate Baseball and No. 29 in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association poll this week.

The Bears are second in the conference in batting average with .307 and are slugging .490 with a .395 on-base percentage. They also lead the Big 12 in doubles with 49, led by junior infielders Davis Wendzel and Thomas. Wendzel, who’s been a consistent presence at the plate for the team, is third in the conference and leads Baylor with a .387 average, is tied for fourth with eight stolen bases and sits at ninth with 19 RBIs. Thomas said Wendzel’s consistency has been great for the Bears.

“It’s great having that consistent guy in the 3-hole that just absolutely bashes pitches over and over again. He has an ‘0-fer’ day everyone’s like, ‘What’s going on?’ It’s weird. But no, it’s been good for the team,” Thomas said.

West Virginia, who has won eight of their last 10 and back-to-back weekend series, is seventh in the Big 12 with a 13-7 overall record and a .650 winning percentage. Baylor can expect strong pitching and baserunning out of the Mountaineers as they are second in Big 12 pitching and lead in stolen bases. Their biggest threat on the mound will be Friday starter Alek Manoah, who is ranked 12th in the NCAA with 45 strikeouts and holds a 2.88 ERA.

Offensively, the Bears will have to keep an eye on sophomore second baseman Tyler Doanes, who leads West Virginia with a .342 average, a .570 slugging percentage and three triples. Junior center fielder Brandon White leads the conference with 14 stolen bases.

Baylor, however, is on top of the Big 12 in fielding with a .977 percentage and are tied for fourth with 16 double plays. They also don’t have much to worry about with a Gold Glove winning catcher back behind the plate. According to Rodriguez, the Bears will prepare as much they can for what the Mountaineers will bring to the ballpark this weekend.

“They’re a good team. They’ve stolen a lot of bases,” Rodriguez said. “Luckily, we have Shea [Langeliers] back, who can hopefully neutralize those behind the plate. …They’re pretty offensive. They have two really good starting pitchers, so we’re going to prepare for that as well.”

The series against West Virginia will begin at 6:35 p.m. on Friday and continue at 3:05 p.m. on Saturday with the final game at 12:05 p.m. on Sunday.