By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor
After flushing away Friday night’s opening loss, Baylor baseball evened up the series against Nebraska with an 8-7 walk-off win Saturday and then took the series with a 7-2 victory Sunday in the rubber match.
Head coach Steve Rodriguez said that he doesn’t really put too much importance on the season opener because he understands there’s going to be first-game jitters for a lot of his players.
“I told them after Friday’s game that I don’t give a lot of credence to the first game of the year,” Rodriguez said. “It’s kind of a nerve-racking experience when it’s the first time and you’re excited but you’re nervous and all that. […] A lot of teams, will take a beating like we did on Friday and kind of wear it the rest of the weekend but our guys didn’t and I’m pretty proud of them.”
The Bears got big production from several of their newcomers over the weekend, including freshman center fielder Jared McKenzie and freshman designated hitter Tre Richardson.
After Huskers second baseman Cam Chick homered in the top of the first inning Saturday, McKenzie put the Bears on the board in the first inning to tie things up at 1-1 when junior shortstop Nick Loftin doubled down the left field line to drive him in. Baylor then proceeded to extend its lead over the next three innings, adding five more runs to the score.
Sophomore second baseman Ricky Martinez flied out to bring in senior outfielder Hunter Seay for the first run of the second inning. Richardson then tripled to right field allowing transfer third baseman Esteban Cardoza-Oquendo to reach home.
In the third inning, Loftin and senior catcher Andy Thomas bashed back-to-back home runs, the first of the season for each upperclassman, effectively chasing Nebraska starter Colby Gomes from the game and bring in lefty Caleb Feekin out of the bullpen for an inning. Huskers junior righty Max Schreiber replaced Feekin in the fourth after Richardson walked and McKenzie singled to right center field. Richardson added another run for the Bears when Loftin grounded out to short.
But Schreiber managed to shut down the Bears for the next four innings while the Husker bats started to heat up. Nebraska tied the game up with five runs in the fifth and Baylor starting lefty Paul Dickens, who had held the Huskers scoreless for three innings after giving up the homer to Chick, was relieved by redshirt junior righty Daniel Caruso. Caruso walked Huskers DH Leighton Banjoff but managed to send Baylor back to the dugout when catcher Gunner Hellstrom hit into a double play.
Nebraska took the lead in the sixth on a solo shot by first baseman Ty Roseberry the Bears were able to rally in the ninth when a Martinez double scored Seay and sent the game into extra innings for the first time this season.
Senior closer Luke Boyd put away Chick with a pop up to McKenzie in center to start off the tenth. Nebraska short stop Spencer Schwellenbac hit through the right center gap to reach first but after right fielder Aaron Palensky flied out to left for the second out, Thomas threw out his first runner of the season as Schwellenbac attempted to steal second.
With his fourth hit of the day, McKenzie doubled to left center. After striking out Loftin, the Huskers intentionally walked Thomas to bring up Baylor first baseman Chase Wehsener, who’d homered the night before but hadn’t had much luck at the plate Saturday. After going 0-for-4 in regulation, Wehsener drove in McKenzie to earn the walk-off win for the Bears and tie the series 1-1.
Richardson, who came back Sunday to hit 2-for-3 with two runs and an RBI in the rubber match, said the team just focused on bouncing back and not worrying about the opener.
“It really comes down to, you know, we got a three-game series for a reason,” Richardson said. “It stunk to lose like that Friday night but Coach Rod preached to us that if we win the next two then the Friday night doesn’t even matter. So, I think we just came out and we really just pushed ourselves to win.”
Senior righty Hayden Kettler took the hill for Baylor Sunday, grabbing the win after five innings with three strikeouts and allowing only two runs. The senior started the game with a 1-2-3 inning before the Huskers managed to plate their only two runs in the second and third but then held them scoreless for two innings.
After a 12-pitch first inning, Kettler said it was just nice to get the jitters out the way and focus on the rest of the game.
“It’s never going to be easy but it’s awesome getting that first inning under your belt, especially with the way that Nebraska’s kind of come out swinging the bats this weekend,” Kettler said. “That was one thing in the game plan was you know I’m going to get through the first inning and we’re going to do whatever it takes so it’s good. It gives you some confidence going back in the dugout and I mean they’re a good team, any inning that you can put up a zero is a good thing.”
The Bears got their own bats going, scoring three runs in the third, one in the fifth and three more in the sixth. McKenzie continued his hot streak with two hits, two RBIs and a run, Loftin brought some reinforcement with a hit and two RBIs and Cardoza-Oquendo put together a two hit, two run day at the plate as well.
Defensively, Baylor had a much different game than they did Friday, turning three double plays to end the fifth, sixth and seventh innings.
“Any time you can turn double play is great, but two turn three, I mean — those are rally killers,” Kettler said. “That’s unbelievable from our defense and it makes my job easier.”
Baylor continues its early season home stand with a midweek game against Arkansas Pine-Bluff 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Baylor Ballpark.