By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor
It has been 712 days since Baylor baseball has faced off against the Texas Longhorns. It’s been 663 days since they’ve played in a conference game. That changes tonight at Baylor Ballpark as the 10th ranked squad from Austin makes the trip up I-35 for the first Big 12 game on the Brazos in two years.
It looks to be a matchup made in heaven as the Bears’ red-hot offense faces off against the Horns’ formidable pitching staff. Baylor currently leads the Big 12 in hitting with a .346 batting average, good for third in the nation. The Bears are averaging 9.6 runs per game over the last 10 games and hold a perfect record at home while riding a 10-game win streak. Texas currently holds the title of second-best pitching staff in the conference, behind Kansas State, with a 3.21 team ERA. The Horns are riding a six-game win streak of their own.
“I think we’re going to continue our win streak. That’s the goal,” said junior lefty Tyler Thomas, who will get the start tonight.
The fourth-year junior has been dealing through four starts this season, sporting a 2-0 record with a 1.96 ERA and a team-best 25 strikeouts. The Keller native is holding batters to a .193 average through 23 innings pitched so far.
The pitching matchups have been set as UT righty Ty Madden will also take the mound to start game one tonight for the Longhorns. Sophomore righty Blake Helton will start on Saturday for the Bears against Longhorn righty Tristan Stevens, and senior righty Hayden Kettler will wrap things up on Sunday against righty Kolby Kubichek.
Head coach Steve Rodriguez said the key to beating Texas could be in forcing them to play defense in what looks to be a close series.
“My biggest thing is try and eliminate strikeouts,” Rodriguez said. “Force contact, make them play defense — you know, if you put the ball in play, you got a chance to get a hit and get on base and make things happen.”
Texas is coming off a sweep of No. 12 South Carolina and a 15-2 run-rule win over UTRGV on Wednesday. Senior catcher Andy Thomas will have to be wary of the Longhorns’ speed as UT leads the Big 12 in stolen bases with Mike Antico and Eric Kennedy in the top two spots. But the fifth-year backstop, who sits on top the conference in runners caught stealing with eight, isn’t nervous. He’s focused on doing his job.
“The pitcher’s got to be quick to the plate and I’ve got to make good throws,” the Murietta, Calif., native said. “That’s what we’ve done all year… Be quick to the plate, make sure my transfers are good — I’ll be working on that today in practice and tomorrow before the game — and make sure my arm feels right. And if they run, absolutely throw them out, every single time.”
The last time UT came to Waco, during the 2019 season, the two teams split the series with epic come-from-behind wins in both games. The Bears were ranked No. 22 that week and were hosting a No. 8-ranked Texas squad.
Baylor walked it off 6-5 in game one, the Bears’ fourth walk-off of the season and 14th come-from behind win. Right fielder Davion Downey delivered the winning blow with a single to right field that drove in then-center fielder Richard Cunningham in for the winning run. In a glimpse of what was to come, Luke Boyd entered the game in the eighth inning to get Texas catcher Michael McCann to ground out into a double play. Boyd came back to close the ninth with a scoreless, hitless inning to earn the win.
The Longhorns struck back the next day, scoring seven unanswered runs in the sixth and seventh innings after Baylor put up five runs to take the lead in the first and fifth. Baylor’s rally fell short, scoring just one run in the ninth for UT to take the win 8-6. The Sunday rubber match was canceled due to inclement weather. But as the Bears got back on a tear to finish second in the conference and move on to a regional, Texas failed to make the postseason at all.
The two teams are far removed from who they were two seasons ago. Of the 46 players on Baylor’s large roster this year, 31 of them have yet to play in a conference game.
“It is exciting,” Rodriguez said. “You know, I thought our team was really intriguing last year, especially going through the Shriner’s Classic and doing what we did. I would have really liked to see kind of where we were going to shake everything out throughout our conference. This year, our conference actually looks stronger.”
First pitch for game one is set for 6:30 p.m. tonight. Game two is scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday, and the rubber match will be played at 1 p.m. Sunday. The series will be broadcast on Big 12 Now on ESPN+ as well as the Longhorn Network. Fans can also listen to the radio broadcast on ESPN 1660/92.3 FM with Derek Smith on play-by-play. Cunningham will join Smith as the color analyst on Sunday.