The New Old Guys: An old soul building bridges

Fifth-year senior righty Jimmy Winston has become Baylor's go-to multi-inning relief guy during the 2021 season, leading the team with four wins so far this season. DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor

By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor

Jimmy Winston’s presence is pacifying, calm. The 6-foot-4-inch, 200-pound Houston native has done it all on the mound for the Bears — from bullpen work to starting under the Friday night lights. Now as a fifth-year senior, Winston has settled into a long-outing relief role, a bridge between the starters and the set-up guys. It’s a role he’s fully embraced.

But it’s been a long road to the bridge.

A graduate of Lamar High School, home to a storied baseball program, Winston wasn’t heavily recruited going into his senior year. He was a two-year letterwinner for coach David Munoz while at Lamar and earned an honorable mention All-American selection from Rawlings/Perfect Game in 2016 as well as a Perfect Game second-team All-Texas region selection.

“I was lucky enough to be looked at by Baylor and some other schools going into my senior year. Baylor gave me the best opportunity I think because they had a new coaching staff coming in, and it was a great school academically, and it was in the Big 12 which was really cool. So, I got a good shot to come over here and kind of pursue my baseball career,” Winston said. “I got here as a freshman — a shy, scared freshman for the first couple of months, but I kind of came into my own and got ready for the season and was hoping to contribute.”

Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, Winston had to get surgery on his elbow and redshirted his true freshman year. He returned as a redshirt freshman in 2018 to make 11 appearances, two of them starts, picking up a 2-0 record with a 2.25 ERA over 20 innings. But that was the year of the “Old Guys,” so Winston had to wait his turn while learning from the likes of Alex Phillips, Drew Robertson and Joe Heineman.

“I got to play a little bit, which was awesome, but definitely didn’t have the role that I did my junior year my senior year, I’m now in my fifth year,” Winston said. “And that’s alright because I learned a lot from the older guys and they were really, really, really good.”

Winston speaks about switching back to the bullpen after beginning the season as a starter.

After working mainly in relief capacity, Winston had a breakout year in 2019. He began the year in the bullpen but made his way into the starting rotation toward the end of the non-conference slate, pitching four innings in a loss to Cal Poly. However, Winston quickly found a rhythm. Out of his 19 appearances, 11 of them starts, the righty had nine scoreless outings and finished the year with a seven-strikeout performance against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournament and a six-inning outing against Loyola Marymount in the Los Angeles Regional.

Winston has been both a starter and a reliever for the Bears, and has grown into one of the pitching staff's stronger veterans. He holds a 2.65 ERA this season. DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor
Winston has been both a starter and a reliever for the Bears, and has grown into one of the pitching staff’s stronger veterans. He holds a 2.65 ERA this season. DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor

A Calm Intensity

Just as has been the theme with each of the New Old Guys, Winston takes things as they come. He’s been called an old soul by his coaches and teammates, with a breezy temperament. When the 2020 season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a season in which Winston pitched 11.1 innings, most of them in relief, the senior returned to Houston not knowing what the future held for him.

“After the season ended, I really didn’t do anything baseball specific for probably a month,” Winston said. “I went home and went and walked around trails in Houston with my mom and my dogs every day. That was really for about a month, and then I talked to Coach Rod and figured out that I was going to come back for my fifth year… Quarantine was weird and tough, but it was weird and tough on everybody, not just myself. It was, you know, the whole world was going through it so everybody had to struggle with it, and we all got through it, and we’re here now. I’m playing my fifth year of college baseball, and that’s all that matters.”

It seems Winston was made to be a bullpen arm. He began the 2021 season with a tough start against UT Rio Grande Valley, taking the loss as the Bears fell 4-7 to the Vaqueros on Feb. 22. He’s worked out of the bullpen since then.

Not knowing when he’ll be called to war has made him comfortable in his role because he doesn’t have time to overthink.

“I think out of the bullpen, you have less time to think about the game — the mental side of the game,” Winston said. “You could be in the dugout and five minutes later they tell you to go to the bullpen and get hot. You have less time to think about anything, and I think that’s helped me a bunch. It’s a quick game like that, no talking about that random stuff.”

Through 35.1 innings pitched in relief during this season, Winston holds a 2.55 ERA, allowing just 12 runs on 23 hits and posting 40 strikeouts as he leads the team with a 5-2 record. According to head coach Steve Rodriguez, Winston has been his best in the “Alex Phillips-type” role.

“I don’t know what it is, but he just comes out, like there’s less thought process. There’s, you know, I would say less preparation,” Rodriguez said. “It’s just, ‘come out and perform,’ and he’s been really good at it, so we’re going to maximize what he’s really good at right now.”

Winston had particularly stellar games against North Carolina A&T and West Virginia. Taking over in the third inning of the night cap of a double header with the NCA&T, Winston held the Aggies scoreless through six innings with a season-high seven strikeouts. He followed up with another 3.1 scoreless innings against the Mountaineers on Saturday, where even with three walks and two wild pitches, he still hustled to keep WVU off the board. Filling in for sophomore starter Blake Helton, Winston got out of the jam in the fourth when he picked up a wild pitch ball that bounced off catcher Andy Thomas’ chest protector and tagged West Virginia’s Vince Ippolito as he dashed to home plate from third base.

His experience as a starter has also been beneficial in the spot he’s in, giving him the resilience needed to throw multiple innings in any situation.

“It’s good to have guys like [Jacob] Ashkinos and [Hambleton Oliver] and myself who don’t necessarily have to every time, but can come out of the bullpen and pick up a chunk of innings during a game,” Winston said.

Pitching coach Jon Strauss said it was the selflessness of pitchers like Winston and Sunday starter Hayden Kettler that have turned the Baylor pitching staff into a force of nature.

“They’ll do whatever it takes to help us win… Hayden [Kettler] has done a great job as a starter over his career, but also has come out of the bullpen,” Strauss said. “Jimmy’s done [the same], with some success — sometimes he’s good as a starter, sometimes he’s good as a reliever… They’re going to go out there and give you everything they can.”

Winston speaks about pitching coach Jon Strauss’ commitment to the success of the pitchers.

Because of his redshirt year as a freshman, combined with the extra year of eligibility given to spring athletes in 2020 after the season was canceled, Winston has the opportunity to return to Baylor for a sixth year. But the fifth-year senior isn’t worried about what’s next just yet.

“It has crossed my mind for sure, just to have an extra year of eligibility,” Winston said, “but I think I’m just gonna keep my head down and focus on this year and kind of not look forward — or look forward to things obviously, but not look too far ahead into the next year.”

Winston said his favorite part of playing for Baylor has been the memories he's built with his teammates during his five years with the Bears. DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor
Winston said his favorite part of playing for Baylor has been the memories he’s built with his teammates during his five years with the Bears. DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor