By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor
It was May 27, 2018 when the Baylor baseball team found itself in the sixth inning of the 2018 Big 12 Tournament championship game with a 3-2 lead over Texas Christian University. Joe Heineman was on the mound in his second inning of work after being called out of the bullpen in the fifth, pitching a scoreless inning to start his outing in relief.
Except in this particular moment he had put himself in a pickle. Although he started the sixth inning with a strikeout, he then gave up a triple to TCU center fielder Johnny Rizer, placing the tying run on third base with one out. Heineman managed to throw a few decent pitches and get Horned Frogs catcher Zach Humphreys to fly out to center field for out No. 2.
Then it was Connor Wanhanen’s turn at the plate. Wanhanen was also a senior and a native of Flower Mound which was just a 21-minute drive around Grapevine Lake to Southland, Heineman’s hometown. According to Heineman, the two had played in high school together, so Wanhanen was pretty familiar with the type of pitcher that Heineman was.
“Obviously the inning’s not done,” Heineman said. “He battles me, so he knows that I throw junk, right … I’m not an overpowering pitcher. I mean he’s looking for something soft, and I got the count to one and two, and he’s just fouling stuff off.” And then Heineman got a surprising sign from then-sophomore catcher Shea Langeliers to throw Wanhanen a fastball up in the zone.
That made Heineman uncomfortable.
“I kid you not, I probably threw a fastball my senior year, probably 5% of the time, maybe. And [Coach Strauss is] asking me to throw a fastball up,” Heineman said. “Shea Langeliers gave me the sign and I’m like, ‘Really Strauss, you want to throw this? Like, I don’t throw hard. This might go over the fence.’ I came set, and I was so close to stepping off, but I took a moment. I was like, ‘I trust this man.’ He knows the game and knows this is the right pitch to call.”
You see, baseball is a game of anticipation, much like chess. You’re always anticipating the opponent’s next move. What is the pitcher going to throw? Where is the ball going to be hit? Is the runner going to take off for the next base?
And when it comes to pitching in the college game, the chess master is the pitching coach. In Baylor’s case, Jon Strauss was the guy making the moves, planning things out by studying the scouting reports on TCU’s hitters. His move here was for Heineman to throw a fastball up to one of TCU’s best hitters, who would have anticipated Heineman to throw him an off-speed pitch based on the scouting report.
“That was a huge moment,” Langeliers said. “Heineman was a guy that threw his slider as hard as he threw his fastball … and Strauss gave us a fastball up. We’re like, ‘Whoa, Joe doesn’t do that,’ but eventually Joe threw that pitch with conviction and struck Wanhanen out in a huge situation … Strauss is playing that chess game with the scouting reports.”
It Starts on the Hill
In baseball’s early years, the pitcher’s job was not to prevent the batter from hitting, but rather the opposite. It’s an opinion shared by many that the game is more exciting when the ball is in play, so there were many rules that prevented pitchers from doing anything too fancy. Their job was basically that of a delivery boy. Finally, in 1884, all restrictions on the delivery of the pitcher were removed in Major League Baseball.
Many coaches, including Baylor baseball head coach Steve Rodriguez, have cited pitching as a very important part of the game. The whole point of baseball is to find a way to get around the bases to score. You can’t get on base until you hit the ball or earn a walk.
So, the game can’t begin until the first pitch is thrown, and in many cases (excluding walk-off wins), it doesn’t end until the last out is made. Because of this simple fact, for many that know how to play the game within the game, the road to victory begins with pitching. So, developing a good pitching staff has become one of the priorities of many of the nation’s top baseball programs, including Baylor’s.
“Baylor has first class facilities, really everything at the fingertips of the players,” Heineman said. “When you have those resources, and then you have a coach like Coach Strauss, now just talking about the pitching, it’s kind of a perfect storm in a way. The way he coaches, his philosophies, he’s going to put you in situations where you can succeed. He’s going to tell you your strengths, your weaknesses. And you know, he’s going to help you help the team win.”
In 2018, Rodriguez and Strauss had one of the best pitching staffs, if not the best, in the Big 12 Conference. They had a young, yet talented starting rotation made up of Cody Bradford (who was named conference pitcher of the year that season), Hayden Kettler and Tyler Thomas. Bradford and Kettler were sophomores with good velocity and several pitches they could throw for strikes. Thomas was a freshman who threw hard and could get guys out but who struggled with control, as most freshmen usually do, and could get himself into less than favorable situations by walking batters.
That’s where the bullpen came in.
“That bullpen was super selfless,” Heineman said. “Everyone in that pen kind of knew their role to the team — they knew the goal of the team and what we were trying to accomplish.”
A mix of freshmen and sophomores, Baylor’s pitching staff only sported four seniors and one true junior, all of them relievers.
“The Old Guys,” Langeliers said. “They got their nickname from Coach Strauss, but those five older pitchers, they were like our go-to guys. They set the standard for Baylor baseball and how to go about, you know, just practice or a game or how to handle yourself in certain situations. They’re a big reason why our pitching staff was successful after they left.”
Setting the Standard
The ‘Old Guys’ group consisted of Heineman, Alex Phillips from Nacogdoches, Tyler native Drew Robertson, Corpus Christi junior Kyle Hill and San Antonio closer Troy Montemayor. All of them right-handed pitchers.
“Phil and Heineman were your entertainer types,” Langeliers said. “They were funny guys, big morale guys. Drew Robertson was, you know, kind of a mix of funny and intense, serious type of guy.”
And then there was Troy Montemayor, The Mayor.
“Troy just has a huge chip on his shoulder, doesn’t really care what anybody thinks of him. He knows how good he is or was, at the time,” Heineman said. “You look at him and he’s a small guy, but then he gets on the mound and he acts like he’s 7-feet tall and throws 105 miles per hour. He has that type of mentality, and that mentality is actually hard to find so far, especially being a right-handed closer in a big-time conference. I mean, he has to think that way to be successful.”
Montemayor was the clear leader of the pitching staff. He had been named a second-team All-American selection by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association as a junior in 2017 and tied Baylor’s all-time career saves record in 2018, after completing 11 his senior year to bring his four-year total to 37. Montemayor was drafted in the 25th round of the 2018 MLB Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals but only played one season in their minor league system.
Robertson was also drafted but turned down the offer. A transfer from Tyler Junior College as a sophomore, Robertson had to battle through injuries as a high school player at The Brook Hill School, overcoming an accident that almost caused him to lose the ability to walk. At Baylor, he finished the 2018 season with a 1.88 ERA over 28.2 innings of work and tied for sixth in the Big 12 in appearances with 28.
“That dude is battle tested,” Heineman said of Robertson. “He’s been through the gutter and back, and he’s just relentless. And he has had so much adversity, on and off the field that whenever he’s on the field, nothing really fazes him. And it helped that he threw 90 and had a nasty slider.”
Another guy with a “nasty slider” was Heineman himself. Nicknamed “The Magician” by Strauss, the Weatherford College transfer was known as the guy who could get out of any high-pressure situation. As a senior, he led the team with a 1.80 ERA over 21 appearances in relief. “I actually did, in my opinion, better coming into a nasty situation, rather than starting a clean inning,” The Magician said. “It’s weird. I had more of a comfort level coming into a high-pressure situation because I knew I could throw my nasty stuff and the hitters are looking to swing.”
Then there was Phillips, a redshirt senior who started his college career in one of the best-known programs in college baseball at the University of Arkansas. He made 10 appearances for the Razorbacks, eight of them starts, and tallied three wins with a 3.52 ERA in 30.2 innings during the 2014 season before transferring to San Jacinto College in Houston. After a season that saw him make 72 strikeouts over 68 innings in 13 starts for San Jac, Phillips transferred to Baylor but sat out his first year due to Tommy John surgery.
“Alex is also a cool story,” Heineman said. “He was kind of the catalyst to our team, as far as energy and as far as just the hype man, and bringing the team closer … I mean he was a crucial part to our season because … he was a pen guy but he could have easily been a starter. He was the guy that would eat up six, seven innings if we had a short start from one of our starters. And that was so crucial to save your other bullpen arms for other games.”
Langeliers recalled one specific instance where Phillips had a particularly long outing out of the bullpen. After Baylor defeated TCU in the Big 12 Tournament championship game, marking their first Big 12 title in program history, the Bears were given an automatic bid into the postseason and were set to compete in the Stanford Regional in California.
After dropping the opener to Cal State Fullerton, Baylor defeated Wright State to set up the matchup against the host team. Thomas started for the Bears but after giving up four runs in the first two innings, Phillips was sent out to relieve him.
“Phil comes in the second and pitches the rest of the day and doesn’t give up a run,” Langeliers said. “I mean, all those guys are going to have moments where they just came out when we really needed them. Whenever we needed those guys to step up, they always stepped up and always came through for us.”
The New Old Guys
Baylor ultimately lost to Stanford that day, finishing the 2018 season with a 37-21 record, the best under Rodriguez so far. Phillips signed on with the Minnesota Twins sometime after leaving Baylor and is currently part of their Double-A squad in Pensacola, Florida. However, he didn’t pitch this season due to the pandemic, which gave him and his wife Ashley the chance to welcome their firstborn son into the world.
Hill, the lone true junior on the 2018 squad, returned in 2019 as the Bears’ closer after the departure of Montemayor. He didn’t allow a run all season, wrapping up his final year with a 0.00 ERA over 29.1 innings pitched with 35 strikeouts. He was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 10th round of the 2019 Draft.
“Over time, when you work with Coach Strauss and find the pitcher you truly are, you find your strengths and you stick to those strengths because you know those strengths will give you success,” Heineman said. “So, with Kyle Hill, he had a super high spin rate. He threw hard, but his super high spin rate helped him cause swing and misses and caused weak contact. So, he would live up in the zone and that would be very effective for him. Whereas if I was living up in the zone, I would have a 200 ERA.”
Although the “Old Guys” have moved on from Baylor, the pitching staff, and particularly the bullpen, continues to be successful. Pitchers like Luke Boyd, who took over the closer role upon Hill’s departure, Ryan Leckich, Daniel Caruso and Logan Freeman, among others, have continued the bullpen’s legacy of playing with grit and doing what is needed of them.
They have become the “New Old Guys.”
“That was our class right there,” said Langeliers, who was a freshman during the 2017 season and was drafted in the first round of the 2019 Draft by the Atlanta Braves. “They’ve come so far … you come in as a freshman and you really don’t know what to expect, so it’s kind of honestly a little scary at first. From a coach’s perspective, I can just imagine that you never know how an incoming freshman is going to react to a given situation, so it’s kind of like a feel out, and it started with the “Old Guys” before them. Now they’re the “New Old Guys” because that mentality of winning and passion and working hard is passed down, and hopefully it stays in the program for a long time.”