Eighth-seed Baylor baseball primed for postseason, awaits top-seed TCU

The eight-seeded Bears have made it to Globe Life Field, home of the Texas Rangers, in preparation for the Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship. Photo courtesy of Baylor Athletics.

By Michael Haag | Sports Editor

In sports, we’ve seen David-versus-Goliath matchups where all the odds are against an underdog team, and it feels like there’s no way the favorite goes down. Baylor baseball is soon to be in that spot, seeking an upset win and giving it a chance to turn a lot of heads.

It hasn’t been the smoothest ride for the Bears (26-26, 7-17 Big 12), but amid their injuries and missed opportunities, they find their place as the eighth-seed for the 2022 Phillips 66 Big 12 Baseball Championship at Globe Life Field, home of the Texas Rangers, in Arlington.

Baylor will face a tall task, as it’s slated to play regular season Big 12 champion Texas Christian University, with first pitch set for 12:30 p.m. CT on Wednesday. There aren’t many picking Baylor to knock off the top-seeded Horned Frogs (35-18, 16-8 Big 12), but the team is shrugging and thinking to itself: Why not?

“We don’t have anything to lose,” sophomore outfielder Jared McKenzie said. “We can compete with anybody.”

McKenzie, who was named to the All-Big 12 Second Team Wednesday morning, was part of the 2021 squad that failed to notch a win in the conference tournament, thus leading to the Bears being the 65th team out of the NCAA Tournament. The consensus preseason All-American said he knows the team is in a similar position as it was a year ago, but he said he thinks it has a goal to do whatever it takes to win.

“This year, we’re probably not in a better spot, but we can go out there and just say, ‘Hey, we can only win this thing. That’s the only thing we can do,’” McKenzie said. “If we lose it, then it’s over. We’re just going to go out there and win every game — that’s our goal.”

For head coach Steve Rodriguez, the message is quite simple: Take it game by game, and don’t get ahead of yourself.

“The way I’m looking at it, from game one, we have to win; it’s just that simple,” Rodriguez said. “Then we’ll deal with game two the next day. But I’m not going to look for games two and three those first couple days. We need to focus on the first game, deal with that, and then we move on to the next one.”

Baylor is coming off a series loss to Oklahoma State University but managed to snag a 13-11 comeback victory in the series-opener on May 19. Overall, Rodriguez said he thought he saw good plate approaches from his squad, and it will bode well moving into this week.

Regarding this week, the 2017 Big 12 Coach of the Year knows exactly where the key to victory rests. After losing a pair of weekend aces in fifth-year senior left-hander Tyler Thomas and sophomore righty Will Rigney, the starters on the mound will be “the biggest thing.”

“The biggest thing for us is going to be the starting pitches,” Rodriguez said. “Our guys have to play really good defense. Our defense needs to play well. We need to get some timely hitting, and starting pitching is going to be a big part of it.”

The expected starter for Wednesday is junior right-handed hurler Blake Helton, who has battled injuries but has come back in a big way to bolster the rotation. Helton said he knows the squad hasn’t been super sharp on the mound all year, and the “whole staff” has to pitch better.

The Austin native’s early season setback pigeonholed his appearance in the Bears’ regular season series versus TCU, where the Frogs took two of three in Waco. This has potential to be a huge advantage for Baylor, as the Horned Frogs’ lineup has not seen the former Lake Travis High School pitcher this season.

“Hopefully it’s an advantage that they haven’t seen me yet, but I like the matchup,” Helton said. “I think we’ll do well.”

Wednesday’s contest — which can be viewed via Big 12 Now on ESPN+ — is set, with the winner facing the victor between fourth-seed OSU and fifth-seed University of Texas at 4 p.m. CT Thursday on ESPNU. Therefore, the losers between both Baylor/TCU and UT/OSU will also play each other, and that duel is scheduled for 9 a.m. CT Thursday, courtesy of the same Big Now on ESPN+ stream.

For those who prefer to listen, ESPN Central Texas 1660 AM radio will cover all Baylor games for the week, with lead talent Derek Smith on the call.

Rodriguez said the opponent is irrelevant in the double elimination tournament, and “if [the Bears] play well, [they] have a chance to beat anybody.”

Helton and the team are embracing the underdog role and believe they have as good of a shot to win the tournament as anyone.

“We haven’t had a great year, but I know we’re a better team than our record shows, so I think we should be ranked higher,” Helton said. “We’re starting off as the eight-seed, but we can pull it off.”

For more information, such as the full bracket or where to get tickets, check out the Big 12 website.