Take me out to a Big 12 ballgame: A look at the conference before Opening Day

Oklahoma senior outfielder Brady Harlan takes a lead off second base as Baylor junior shortstop Nick Loftin covers the infield during a Big 12 baseball game in 2019. DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor

By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor

College baseball starts Friday and I’d be lying if I said I wasn‘t counting down the hours until the first pitch of the season.

With five teams nationally ranked in the Top 25 by several publications, the Big 12 is shaping up to be highly competitive this season. So, here’s a look at where the teams stand in the preseason.

1. Texas Tech

With six first place votes in the Big 12 Preseason Poll, the Red Raiders are an obvious No. 1. Despite having lost third baseman Josh Jung, first baseman Cameron Warren and outfielder Gabe Holt, three guys that made significant impact in Tech’s lineup last season, the Raiders still have a threatening lineup that combines power, speed and experience. Add in a solid defense and formidable pitching staff and Tim Tadlock’s team almost looks invincible.

Watch out for returning junior outfielder Dylan Neuse to be one of the big bats in the lineup this year. In 2019, Neuse posted a slash line of .298/.494/.408 with 12 doubles, eight homers and 51 RBIs as well as 18 stolen bases.

Sophomore righty Micah Dallas will probably be the Red Raiders starting pitcher on Friday night. After a freshman campaign that saw the Aubrey native throw 76 innings with a 4.03 ERA in 19 appearances with 13 starts and 84 strikeouts, Dallas will look to kick-off a breakout season with some experience under his belt. He has good command over multiple pitches and his fastball hits the mid 90s range. Senior righty John McMillon, with his 100 mph-fastball and a deadly slider, and junior righty Bryce Bonnin who can also reach the mid to high 90s, are the most certain candidates to round out the starting rotation.

No. 3 Texas Tech hosts Houston Baptist at 1 p.m. Friday in Lubbock. The game will be broadcast on Fox Sports Southwest.

2. Oklahoma State

The reigning Big 12 Tournament champions, who hosted a regional last year, will be relying heavily on several new faces. With the departures of Trevor Boone, Colin Simpson, Andrew Navigato and Christian Funk, senior outfielder Carson McCusker will be the Cowboys definite power weapon. At 6 feet, 8 inches and 235 pounds, McCusker has the tangibles to be OK State’s clean-up guy after hitting .311 in 2019. However, the Cowboys will be looking to rely less on hitting home runs and more on just making consistent contact.

As far as pitching goes, the Cowboys will hope for a few blue-chip freshman to make an impression in the starting rotation. Look out for veteran lefty Parker Scott to take the mound on Friday. Scott struggled with injuries early in his college career but proved to be consistent when healthy.

The bullpen could prove to be OSU’s biggest strength as senior righty Ben Leeper, redshirt sophomore Tucker Elliot and senior righty Zach Cable return to anchor the relievers with their low 90s fastballs and illusive breaking balls that could prove essential in the later innings.

The only thing the Cowboys could look to improve on would be their defensive but the outfield looks to be a solid base to build upon. Maybe the inauguration of their new ballpark might help too.

No. 17 Oklahoma State travels to face Grand Canyon at 7 p.m. Friday in Phoenix. The game will be broadcast on ESPN3.

3. Texas Christian University

Despite how you might feel about TCU, you can’t knock off its baseball team. The Horned Frogs have a good squad with some good pitching and after grabbing a bid in the NCAA tournament last year, they’re looking for a return at the end of this season.

The Horned Frogs had nine draft picks in 2019, including first-rounder Nick Lodolo, who was picked seventh and was one of the league’s best pitchers last season. While TCU has a lot of holes to fill, they won’t worry too much as they nabbed the country’s fourth-best recruiting class, which includes five new pitchers.

Only senior righty Charles King returns to the rotation, and like OK State, TCU will be looking for some major production from its freshmen. King pitched 85.2 innings with a 3.36 ERA in 2019 and will most likely be the Horned Frog’s Friday guy.

In the lineup, senior catcher Zach Humphries returns after passing up his 26th-round draft pick and opting to finish his college career. Humphries’ presence could be essential to the Horned Frogs this year in terms of leadership and stability.

TCU hosts Kentucky at 6:30 p.m. Friday in Fort Worth with a live stream on Horned Frog TV.

4. Oklahoma

Although the Sooners missed the postseason last year, they return in 2020 with more experience and strong defense behind the plate and up the middle.

OU boasts a double threat in junior righty Cade Cavalli, as the Big 12 Preseason Pitcher of the Year can not only strike batters out with his low to mid 90s fastball but can also do damage at the plate. While Cavalli will probably see more time on the mound than in the lineup, I still have nightmares of that homer he bashed against Baylor during last year’s Waco series.

Junior lefty Levi Prater looks to be the Saturday starter with good command of the zone, a solid slider and a 89-90 mph fastball. Rice transfer Dane Acker will most likely round out the rotation and senior reliever Jason Ruffcorn will most definitely do damage out of the bullpen as the Sooners’ closer.

Offensively, Oklahoma isn’t going to wow anyone with an abundance of power or speed but they do have consistency and several veteran hitters on their side. Senior catcher Brady Lindsly hit .291/.480/.364 last season and will probably make improvements offensively at the heart of OU’s lineup. Most of the 2019 lineup will also return in hopes of making improvements off last year’s campaign.

The Sooners open the season against Virginia at 6 p.m. Friday in Pensacola, Fla.

5. Texas

Although I would have placed Texas after Baylor and West Virginia in light of their lackluster 2019 season, I can still see why the Longhorns are No. 5 in the preseason poll. They’re well-coached under David Pierce and will be hunting for a way back to the postseason after missing out on both the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments last year.

The Longhorns return junior ace Bryce Elder who posted a 2.93 ERA after 83 innings and 86 strikeouts in his sophomore campaign. Texas will also have senior catcher DJ Petrinsky back in the lineup after he missed last season due to injury. Outfielders Duke Ellis, Eric Kennedy and Austin Todd return to UT’s offense and senior designated hitter Zach Zubia will most likely move to first base.

Texas will still have to figure out which of their 17 freshmen will make a difference as the middle of the infield is uncertain as well as who will step up in the pitching staff, both in the starting rotation behind Elder and in the bullpen.

The Longhorns open the season against Rice at 7 p.m. Friday in Houston.

6. Baylor

Oh, do the Bears have a lot to prove this year.

After finishing second in the conference during the regular season and making their third-straight regional, you’d think Baylor would have been picked higher in the preseason. But there is some uncertainty in the offense with the departure of a lot of key players.

With the exception of Davion Downey, the outfield is almost completely new and there are gaps to fill at second and third base. Other than that, the offense should do fine with Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year Nick Loftin at shortstop and the ever-reliable Andy Thomas behind the plate.

The Bears won’t have a problem in the pitching department with redshirt junior Jimmy Winston and senior lefty Paul Dickens in the Friday and Saturday spots. The final spot of the weekend rotation could have several contenders including freshman standout Will Rigney and junior lefty Tyler Thomas.

I’m leaning toward Rigney for this one. He had a solid fall and while Thomas has good stuff and high velocity, he’s struggled with his command in the past. He’s been brilliant and consistent out of the bullpen and adds to a deep and experienced group of relievers that is most likely Baylor’s biggest strength this season.

The Bears are no strangers to adversity and with disciplinary suspensions issued on the majority of the upperclassmen last Friday, they will be tested early. Baylor will host Nebraska for its season opener at 6:30 p.m. Friday in Waco. The game will be broadcast on Big 12 Now/ESPN+.

7. West Virginia

If I’m completely honest, I’m really excited for this West Virginia squad. I think Randy Mazey is one of the game’s top-notch coaches and the Mountaineers are going to be huge contenders this year despite losing some experienced players to the draft last summer.

After a historic 2019 season, West Virginia will return with a relatively young roster after losing a lot of key veterans. The Mountaineers won’t have their powerhouse ace Alek Manoah anymore and the only guy returning to the starting rotation is Jackson Wolf, who had a great summer season in Cape Cod.

However, the Mountaineers have several guys that could fill out their rotation, including my good buddy Haden Erbe, a JUCO transfer and Louisiana native. If he can stay healthy, Erbe could be trouble for Big 12 hitters but will battle for a starting spot with sophomore Zach Ottinger and several of the freshmen.

West Virginia travels to face Jacksonville in the season opener at 5 p.m. Friday in Jacksonville, Fla.

8. Kansas State and 9. Kansas

I mean no offense to the Sunflower State squads but I can’t say that I know much about either team or what they might look like this year. But while they may not always be part of the conservation that doesn’t mean that they won’t be competitive. If there is something I know for sure is that anything can happen in baseball so look out for these two teams to try and make their presence known.

The Wildcats open their season against UTRGV at 7 p.m. Friday in Edinburg, Texas with the game being broadcast on WAC Digital Network. The Jayhawks open their season against Belmont at 4 p.m. Friday in Nashville, Tenn.