By DJ Ramirez | Sports Writer
Sometimes you just need your defense to carry you through the game, and when your defense is made up of veterans who are masters of their craft, it’s only a matter of time before you get the walk-off.
That’s exactly what happened on Sunday afternoon when Baylor baseball took the series from the Oklahoma Sooners. In a 12-inning rubber match where the Bears scored just three runs on 10 hits and Oklahoma brought in two runs on seven, senior center fielder Richard Cunningham said the defensive effort is what kept the game going.
“On days like this, when you’re going to go to 12 innings and it’s a Sunday, and you don’t know what’s left in the bullpen on either side, and you know guys have been throwing all weekend, sometimes your defense has to carry you,” Cunningham said. “I’m proud of the guys in the way they fought even though they might have had some bad at-bats and some tough at-bats. The defense carried us through this game.”
The first line in any defense is always the pitching staff, and Baylor’s pitching staff put in some work over the weekend. With the game tied at two after the fifth inning, four Bears held their ground through seven innings. Senior closer Kyle Hill pitched all three extra innings, giving Baylor to take their chance against Sooners closer Jason Ruffcorn, son of former Bears pitcher Scott Ruffcorn (1989-91). Hill had a 1-2-3 top of the 10th, gave up a single to OU third baseman Brylie Ware in the 11th but left him stranded and came back for another 1-2-3 inning in the top of the 12th, striking out right fielder Blake Brewster to bring Baylor back on offense.
According to head coach Steve Rodriguez, Hill could have gone on for several more frames.
“He’s asked us to pitch more and today he was going to keep going for us, simply because he has the ability to do that,” Rodriguez said. “He’s done a lot of different roles for us, starting, middle relief, and he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. As a senior and as strong as he is, and the endurance that he has, he probably could have gone several more innings and been completely fine.”
On top of a solid performance from the pitching staff, the Bears’ defensive lineup proved why they lead the conference defensively, sharing a .979 fielding percentage with the Sooners.
Cunningham was a busy man out in center field, rushing forward to catch a lineout by OU backstop Brady Lindsly at the knees and end the top of the seventh. But the play of the day was when he slammed into the wall to snatch an extra base hit away from Ware in the top of the either, almost breaking his sunglasses in the process. Cunningham said he didn’t realize how far back he actually was when he turned to make the play.
“Because of the situation of the game and how good of a hitter Brylie Ware is, we were plying deep to avoid him getting a double because we knew a double was the only way they could beat us at that time,” Cunningham said. “I took a classic five, 10 steps and that should be nowhere near the wall, but I forgot how deep I was playing and all of a sudden, I heard, ‘Fence!’ from […] Cole [Haring] in right, and all of a sudden I go up and ball’s in the glove and it looks cool I guess.”
Earlier in the game, the Bears put on another stellar play to end the fifth inning and limit any damage Oklahoma might have done to them. With runners in scoring position, Ware doubled to left field where freshman outfielder Kyle Harper picked up the ball and launched to sophomore shortstop Nick Loftin, who in turn made a perfect throw to home plate for junior catcher Shea Langeliers to tag the go-ahead run out to keep the game tied, as the leadoff runner had made it in safe.
The Gold Glove-winning backstop once again showed off his throwing ability, sparking a run down in the ninth inning to catch Sooners second baseman Conor McKenna as he tried to steal. Opponents continue to test Langelier’s arm, but the Keller native has caught nine of 10 base runners stealing so far this season.
Lefty starter Paul Dickens said having Langeliers behind the plate is comforting for Baylor’s pitchers.
“It makes you feel so good, like if you let a runner on first base […] you feel pretty comfortable with just focusing on the batter because you know that he’s got one of the strongest arms in the nation,” Dickens said. “And also, just not to mention, like if you want to bounce a curve ball in the dirt, like he’s going to body up and he’s going to block it. You can feel pretty confident with him back there.”