By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor
On Feb. 29, 2020 (it was a leap year after all), Baylor had a 6-4 lead over the LSU Tigers going into the top of the ninth inning during day two of the Shriner’s College Classic at Minute Maid Park in Houston. In two weeks, the world of college athletics and college baseball would come to a screeching halt. But in that moment, the Bears were doing something they weren’t meant to be doing — beating a ranked SEC school at a big league ballpark to a crowd in which their fans were outnumbered by their opponent’s.
Enter Luke Boyd, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound right-hander from Ojai, Calif., striding out to the mound with all the confidence and focus necessary to close the book on the Tigers. Boyd had been the set-up guy for All-American righty Kyle Hill the year before, pitching 33.2 innings in 2019 while allowing just nine runs on 19 hits and 18 walks and recording 41 strikeouts. He’d also been one of five guys drafted that year, but decided not to sign.
And when Baylor was up against three ranked SEC opponents in Missouri, LSU and Arkansas in Houston the weekend after dropping their series to Oral Roberts at home, the senior said he didn’t psych himself out knowing he was pitching at a big league park. He pitched the same way he’s learned to pitch, one step at a time.
“I guess you could say it’s similar to this point,” Boyd said prior to Baylor’s trip down to Round Rock for the Round Rock Classic. “We just came off a rough weekend before. We kind of had a bad taste in our mouth. We were picked to go 0-3, picked to go last place facing the SEC. So we definitely came in with a chip on our shoulder, and I didn’t know what situations I was going to be pitching in … If we were going to be down. I didn’t know the situation. I just wanted to pitch there.”
Baylor has had resounding success when it comes to developing its pitching staff since the arrival of head coach Steve Rodriguez and pitching coach Jon Strauss, who have had six pitchers drafted out of the 11 players who have been taken in the MLB First-Year Player Draft during their time coaching the Bears. But the closer role in particular has stood out as Baylor has rolled out dominant arms in All-Americans Troy Montemayor and Hill to finish games, particularly in tough situations against stellar competition.
Now, it’s Boyd’s turn.
After notching three of his six saves of the shortened season in Baylor’s clean sweep of the Shriner’s Classic, which tied for the national lead at that point, the kid who’d only had one Division I offer out of high school four years before felt like he was on top of the world.
Boyd praises Baylor pitching coach Jon Strauss for his endurance and commitment to the developing players under him.
Slowing the Game Down
The only other moment that could compete with last year’s Shriner’s Classic, in Boyd’s mind, would be Baylor’s first Big 12 Tournament title win in 2018, at the end of his sophomore year.
“Obviously, you know, when I wear that ring, I wear it with so much pride, I’m so proud of it,” Boyd said. “But I didn’t pitch one inning. That’s when I was struggling. So I didn’t feel like I contributed helping get that ring. So I want to, of course, get back in that position.”
Boyd had already graduated from Nordhoff High School when Baylor offered him a spot on their roster in 2016. He’d finished his senior season with a 2.20 ERA after posting 99 strikeouts over 56 innings pitched as well as recording eight complete games. And yet, he was the last recruit out of his class.
“When I got here, I definitely struggled because I didn’t know if I was able to play at this level,” Boyd said. “I wasn’t expecting to come here. So, you know, Baylor being a Power Five school and being my only Division I offer, I was definitely, you know, skeptical whether I could play at this level. So I think that’s why I may have struggled a little bit in my early years here. I didn’t maybe play with the same confidence I used to.”
As a freshman, Boyd pitched in seven games, making his debut in relief against Niagara on Feb. 18, 2017 and his first career start two days later against Nevada, throwing five scoreless innings, allowing just three hits and three walks and recording the first two strikeouts of his college career. It was his only start that season, the first of just three during his time at Baylor.
He finished his freshman year with an 11.25 ERA after giving up 15 runs, all of them earned, on 15 hits, 14 walks and just nine strikeouts, a drastic change from what he’d done as a high school senior. As a sophomore, he worked exclusively out of the bullpen, making nine appearances, posting 10.1 innings with an ERA of 6.97.
A year later, he would be drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in the 38th round of the 2019 MLB Draft.
“That was definitely unexpected again because of my numbers,” Boyd said. “My freshman year and sophomore year were horrific. You know, there’s no other way to put it. They were very bad.”
As a junior, Boyd became one of Baylor’s most dependable arms out of the bullpen and also started two games for the Bears. He made 24 appearances, usually pitching right ahead of Hill either in the seventh or eighth inning and finished the year with a 2.14 ERA.
“He learned how to slow the game down,” Strauss said. “As a freshman, it was moving real fast for him … He had some lumps, some growing pains, but you know he finally slowed the game down. He developed a slider that is one of the best in the country, and that’s allowed him to have a weapon and give him confidence. And he set up Kyle Hill a couple years ago and had some unbelievable outings. and once Kyle graduated and moved on, Boyd just stepped right in. And it’s kind of like we haven’t missed a beat from Troy to Hill to Boyd.”
His to Take, His to Lose
While the Old Guys — Hill, Montemayor, Joe Heineman, Alex Phillips and Drew Robertson — were getting guys out, putting up scoreless innings and throwing magic sliders during championship games, Boyd was in the dugout or the bullpen watching and learning, “picking their brain” and growing in confidence.
“Watching them have so much success with similar pitches of mine I realized, you know, I can compete at this level,” Boyd said. “Once all those guys left, I realized that that spot, you know, being the key guy, is just up for me to grab. It’s for me to lose. So, I came to that season with a different mentality. Just challenging all hitters, not being timid around the zone.”
In 2020, Baylor was coming off one of their best baseball seasons yet, the best under Rodriguez so far. A 35-19 record, 14-8 in conference, a third straight NCAA Regional appearance and five draft picks, including two in the first round. They’d said goodbye to several high impact guys in catcher Shea Langeliers, third baseman Davis Wendzel, second baseman Josh Bissonette, lefty ace Cody Bradford and outfielders Cole Haring and Richard Cunningham. But the Bears had plenty of experience returning as well as several promising young guys coming in.
And Boyd was the new closer.
He started the season with two innings in the Saturday game against Nebraska, picking up the win as the Bears walked it off to even up the series. He then recorded his first save of the season against Oral Roberts. Four days later, he put up his second against Rio Grande Valley.
Then he embarrassed three ranked SEC teams from the mound of a big league ballpark, racking up saves three, four and five.
“I can remember the LSU game in particular, where he got a lead off hit, and he got a ground ball that could’ve been a double play ball, and we didn’t turn anything, so it’s first and second nobody out, and he held his composure,” Strauss said of Boyd’s Shriner’s outing. “They bunted, he got the out, and then he struck the next two guys out. I don’t think that’s something that he would have been capable of a couple years ago, just because it was a little too much for him, but now that he’s older and knows how to control his emotions. He didn’t have any panic at all.”
After Shriner’s, Baylor traveled to Boyd’s native California to play Cal Poly, where he closed the opening and closing games of the series, completing his sixth save in the rubber match.
Gears were clicking for the Bears as they got near the start of conference play. They had four more games until the Kansas State Wildcats came to town to kick off Big 12 play and after dropping a midweek to Dallas Baptist, Baylor was hoping to bounce back against Grand Canyon University.
But the Lopes never arrived to Waco. A global pandemic shut down college baseball and put an end to baseball careers across the country.
Boyd had given serious consideration to signing with the Angels when he got drafted the year before, but realized he’d “be missing out more not playing college ball,” so he stayed to take over as the closer and finish school with the teammates he grew to think of as brothers. But suddenly, something that was completely out of anyones control was taking his final year with the Green and Gold away.
Despite having what could have been his final season at Baylor cut short, Boyd said he’s never regretted the decision to stay. Luckily, Boyd and several other seniors were given the opportunity to return for another year.
“There was definitely a lot of uncertainty, especially at the beginning, not knowing if we were going to have the opportunity to come back,” Boyd said. “I was preparing for another season, but at the same time, I was looking into a new career. But thankfully the NCAA granted us another year.”
Boyd details his experience in the 2019 MLB Draft and his eventual return to Baylor.
Passing on the Legacy
As much as he learned and continues to learn from Hill and the rest of the Old Guys, Boyd recognizes that he wouldn’t be where he is without his own set-up guys.
“[Hill] gave me a lot of shout outs, a lot of love, keeping my confidence up, saying that he wouldn’t be able to do his job without me,” Boyd said. “And it’s true, because last year, I’m not having the year I had without Logan Freeman, Ryan Leckich and Daniel Caruso in front of me.”
Starting out an unusual 2021 season, filled with safety protocols and the possibility of having to cancel games, Baylor still has its heart set on the making the “road to Omaha” as it does at the beginning of every season. But with 12 true freshman pitchers, along with several second and third year returners to the roster, Boyd and the rest of the New Old Guys are also working to continue the legacy of dominant and consistent pitching that Baylor has built.
“I want to teach the young guys that you just really need to focus on one pitch at a time,” Boyd said. “Whatever Andy [Thomas] throws down with his fingers, all your focus in the world right there is on that one pitch. And after you release that ball, you can’t do anything, it’s out of your control, you’re just another defender out on that field. Then once you get that ball back in your hand, you’re not thinking about that. You’re only thinking about the next pitch. Whatever the next pitch is, all your focus is right there on that next pitch.”
Beyond that, Boyd doesn’t have anything set in stone. He’d like to play for as long as he can after completing Baylor’s sports management program, a marketing and management degree already under his belt.
“Coaching would definitely interest me. I’d like to do it at a high level. I know that’s hard to do and takes some time,” Boyd said. “But if I go a different route, I do just want to stay in the sports realm, whether it’s on the business side of things for a sports organization or even staying within college athletics, helping out young guys also in the same situation that I’ve been in.”
Right now, he’s just going to keep taking it one pitch at a time.