By DJ Ramirez | Sports Writer
After a five-game home stand, No. 25-ranked Baylor baseball is ready for a road trip.
The 18-6 Bears continue conference play at Hoglund Ballpark in Lawrence, Kan., as they face the 14-10 Kansas Jayhawks. After a sweep of West Virginia and two midweek wins over Texas Southern, Baylor is on a five-game win streak and holds a .750 overall winning percentage.
The Bears lead the Big 12 across the board in hitting and fielding and are second behind the Oklahoma Sooners in the standings.
If someone had told head coach Steve Rodriguez his team would be enjoying this kind of success at this point in the season without their planned starting rotation, he said he “would have paid for” it to be true.
“I’ve been unbelievably proud of this team,” Rodriguez said. “For the guys to step up, for the offense to come up with big hits and score a lot of runs, it’s been pretty impressive. And then you have guys in the pitching staff who would typically be midweek guys or middle relief guys that are stepping into some starter roles.”
With the loss of junior lefty Cody Bradford to thoracic outlet syndrome and junior righty Hayden Kettler to illness, although he may be back soon according to Rodriguez, the Bears’ pitching staff has had to shift around and rely on some of their young arms. Junior transfer Paul Dickens and redshirt sophomore Jimmy Winston have stepped into those starter roles that Rodriguez was talking about. Dickens ranks seventh in the conference with 37 strikeouts in 31 innings pitched while Winston leads the Big 12 with a 0.71 ERA and strung together a great start last Saturday in the shutout of the Mountaineers.
Baylor has had some great outings form their young talent with freshman righty Blake Helton standing out with a 1.65 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in the 16 innings he has pitched in relief. Even with all the young pitchers Baylor has, their veterans have also provided their experience and leadership on the mound. Juniors Ryan Leckich and Luke Boyd have a combined 44 strikeouts and senior closer Kyle Hill is tied for second in the conference for saves with four.
On the offensive side of the things, the Bears have become kings of the comeback win. They have three walk-off wins, two off the bat of redshirt sophomore Ryan Bertelsman and have had some dramatic comeback wins against Texas State, Dallas Baptist and West Virginia. Those late inning at-bats have become crucial for Baylor at the plate, according to senior center fielder Richard Cunningham.
“Early on, I felt like we were striking out a lot. We’d go up big on a team and in the middle of a game, all of the sudden, we’d have a quick three-and-out, some brutal at-bats,” Cunningham said. “So it just feels like now, as we’re in these closer games, every single one is just so crucial. You never knew that, regardless of being 0-for-3 going into the bottom of the eighth, you could have a big opportunity to still win a ballgame for the team.”
The Bears are facing a Kansas team with a .583 winning percentage. They are 0-3 in the Big 12 after falling to Oklahoma in their conference opener. The Jayhawks defeated Missouri State to snap a seven-game losing streak on Wednesday. The Bears will face some tough weather and field conditions this weekend, which moved the opener on Friday to 3 p.m.
Rodriguez said although the team will face some challenges, their resiliency has strengthened his faith in them.
“We’re playing in an environment that’s not really comfortable for us and playing on turf, which is a little bit different than playing on grass. We’ve just got to get used to a couple things. It’s going to be wet turf, which is even more interesting,” Rodriguez said. “At the same time, these guys are pretty resilient and I’m pretty proud of what they’ve done.”