By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor
Under clear blue skies and a little afternoon sunshine, Baylor baseball took to the field for the first official spring practice Friday as the Bears prepare for their season opener on Valentine’s Day.
After losing two power bats to the major league draft in Shea Langeliers and Davis Wendzel, Baylor’s biggest strength coming into the 2020 season is a deep and experienced pitching staff.
According to head coach Steve Rodriguez, the Bears won’t have to wonder about who they put on the mound.
“We have two weekend starters coming back. Possibly three,” Rodriguez said. “The big loss is obviously Kyle Hill as our closer, but knowing that you have Luke Boyd who is hopefully going to be able to fill in that role. [Boyd] did a dynamic job being a setup guy last year so as long as he can stay healthy, and he’s got pretty dynamic stuff, so pretty excited to watch him at the end of the game too.”
In 24 appearances as a junior reliever, senior righty Luke Boyd pitched 33.2 innings delivering 41 strikeouts and finished the year with a 2.14 ERA. The Ojai, Calif. native was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels last June but decided to remain at Baylor for his final collegiate season.
As for the Bears’ starting rotation, senior left-hander Paul Dickens and redshirt junior righty Jimmy Winston are the most likely candidates for the first two spots after stellar campaigns in 2019. Winston, who led the Big 12 in ERA for the majority of his sophomore season, said the team is looking to continue a standard of excellence and maybe go even further this year.
“We’ve made a regional ever since I’ve been here and the standards shouldn’t change,” Winston said. “You know, we’re trying to make a regional this year, we’re trying to get further on this year… and we want to do something big this year, and obviously for the younger guys it would be a great opportunity for them to grow this year and then continue to take on this program where it needs to go.”
The final spot in that rotation is yet to be determined but after a solid fall performance, freshman righty Will Rigney could be the guy to watch for. Rodriguez said the local product from Midway High looked great during the team’s fall practices.
“He was throwing in the mid 90s, so that was fun to watch,” Rodriguez said. “Just based on his stuff and how good his fall was, I would say he’s definitely fighting for a weekend spot.”
Baylor will have big shoes to fill in the lineup with the losses of not only Langeliers and Wendzel, but also outfielders Richard Cunningham and Cole Haring, as well as second baseman Josh Bissonette.
But the Bears aren’t worried about offensive production with the return of several key pieces form last season, including sophomore first baseman Chase Wehsener, junior right fielder Davion Downey, Preseason All-American shortstop Nick Loftin and senior catcher Andy Thomas.
With experience as a first baseman and designated hitter, Thomas will be stepping in at backstop after serving as the backup to Gold Glove-winning Langeliers in previous seasons. With no love lost, the Murrieta, Calif. native joked that he’d be better than his former teammate.
“Love him to death, but I got to better than him,” Thomas said. “That’s my role.”
While Thomas isn’t known for the power that Langeliers and former third baseman Wendzel had, the senior can make consistent contact and led the league in line-drive doubles as a junior. While it’s to be decided to who will fill the position spots left open, Thomas said the team won’t lack in terms of offensive production.
“I think we have a bunch of hitting that just hadn’t been seen yet,” Thomas said. “We had guys that were in roles for three, four years, and now these guys get to show what they can do. So, I don’t think that we’re going to be struggling with hitting. I think it’s just going to be fine with these guys getting to show what they can do. I don’t think we’re going to miss a beat at all. We’re going to hit over 300 and I think we’re going to be a really good offensive team.”
With a deep roster that includes 20 returning players, 12 freshmen and two JUCO transfers, Rodriguez will have an abundance of options.
The Bears hit the field against Nebraska in their season opening series at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 14 at Baylor Ballpark.