Baylor baseball’s road to redemption starts with series at Globe Life Field

Junior outfielder Ty Johnson (23) and the Bears are looking to bounce back from a 20-35 season in which they missed the Big 12 Tournament for the first time in school history. Lilly Yablon | Photographer

By Foster Nicholas | Sports Writer

After waiting in the on-deck circle for a couple of months, Baylor baseball is back on the Brazos River. The Bears will open the season with the 2024 Shriners Children’s College Showdown at Globe Life Field in Arlington this weekend. They will face Nebraska at 11 a.m. today, Oregon at 11 a.m. on Saturday and No. 9 Tennessee at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday.

With a year under his belt, head coach Mitch Thompson enters year two with a new motto: “To be the best, you have to beat the best.” And the Bears will get a chance to do just that as the first month of their season features the most difficult schedule in Division I, based on last year’s win percentage and RPI.

“My expectation is to go win,” Thompson said. “But at the same time, there have been some things that say that the first month of the season, we have the No. 1-ranked schedule in the country. Well, there are 300 Division I teams, so if we’re playing the No. 1-ranked schedule in the country, that means our schedule is really good. There’s just no tiptoeing into the season. You better be ready to throw some blows early, and you better be ready to fight.

“Those are the people we’re going to have to beat to be in NCAA Regionals, to play in the tournament and advance to Super Regionals [and then to] Omaha. That’s where you have to go. So we may as well play them. And that’s kind of been the thought process.”

Coming off a disappointing 20-35 season and missing out on the Big 12 Tournament for the first time in program history, the Bears are hoping to right the ship in 2024. Some tweaks are flashier, like a brand new scoreboard that will clue fans in on pitch speeds and exit velocities, and others will be less noticeable but equally important.

“Every year, you gain experience,” Thompson said. “You gain experience as to what you thought you liked and what you thought you could do better in preparing your team. Probably the biggest change people will see is I plan to be in the dugout this year.

“I’ll put coach [Jim] Blair at third base and coach [Zach] Dillon at first. I’ll be in the dugout, and that’ll allow me the freedom to think both offense and defense the whole game as we’re going through it.”

The Bears are already a step ahead of where they were a season ago, bringing back several key players who had breakout seasons in 2023. Junior third baseman Hunter Teplanszky (six home runs, 34 RBI, .308 batting average), senior left fielder Hunter Simmons (four home runs, 34 RBI, .298 batting average) and junior catcher Cortlan Castle (35 hits, .299 batting average) highlight a group of returning starters who could build on individual success.

“Last year, we returned two home runs on the entire ball club when we started the season. I mean, we were starting from scratch,” Thompson said. “When you play experienced ball clubs, you may be facing a hitter who’s in his senior year. He’s probably had 600 or 700 at-bats in college baseball. When we started the year, we had maybe 600 or 700 combined total at-bats on our team.”

In addition to the returning starters, the Bears brought in potential instant-impact bats from the transfer portal, including redshirt junior right fielder Enzo Apodaca (Gonzaga), junior center fielder Ty Johnson (McLennan Community College), sophomore middle infielder Jack Little (Wichita State) and junior shortstop Tyriq Kemp (Western Oklahoma State College). The four of them could bring plus contact, defense and speed to a roster that was the worst in the Big 12 in batting average and stolen bases.

“I think we’ll have more stolen bases,” Thompson said. “I think we can run better up and down the lineup. I think that’s, you know, what you’re hoping for — is that with added power and with added speed, you’re hoping for better.”

Not only was speed a factor, but power was equally key. Simmons and Teplanszky stayed in Waco along with other Bears during the offseason and focused on adding muscle. While they came to camp looking to be stronger, Baylor also added junior outfielder Wesley Jordan, a transfer from Navarro College, where he led the team with 16 home runs. Thompson said Jordan has “light tower power.”

“I’ll be disappointed if we don’t have two or three guys that can hit 10 home runs,” Thompson said. “We didn’t have anybody hit 10, and we didn’t have anybody hit more than I think six last year. I think there’ll be some significant improvements there, power-wise.”

While the bats aim to be the strength of the team, Baylor added to the pitching staff and will look for improved strikeout numbers while decreasing free passes. Junior right-handed pitcher Mason Marriott and senior right-handed pitcher Jared Matheson are a pair of returners who will have opportunities to earn starts.

Redshirt freshman right-handed pitchers Tanner Duke and Collin McKinney each missed the 2023 season recovering from Tommy John surgery but can play an important role as starters or high-leverage relievers. The pair each consistently find the mid 90s on their fastball, with McKinney topping out at 97 in a spring intrasquad scrimmage.

Baylor only rostered one scholarship left-handed pitcher a year ago but will feature seven on its 40-man roster in 2024.

“We have more quality arms. We have a deeper pitching staff that can throw the ball,” Thompson said. “We had 17 different guys during the fall that touched at least 90 miles an hour on the gun. We had seven guys that were able to get 93 or better.”

Nothing will be easy for the Bears as they face three teams who finished top-50 in RPI a season ago at Globe Life Field to open the 2024 season. But after months of training and preparation, playing on the big stage is exactly what they’ve been working toward, according to Johnson.

“It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be a good test for us,” Johnson said. “Getting to play in the defending champions’ stadium, that’s going to be fun too, especially being a Rangers fan. I’m super excited about that.”

The countdown is on, and baseball is on the way. While questions remain for the ball club on the Brazos, one thing is for sure among the team: The Bears are ready to defy expectations.

“We expect to come out there with a few wins and to show people that Baylor baseball is here to play,” Marriott said.

Following the three-game set in Arlington, the Bears will take on Indiana (Lexington Regional) and Oral Roberts (College World Series) — two teams that made deep postseason runs in 2023.

“We have an incredible opportunity with the schedule that we play because we’re going to find out exactly how much we have improved,” Thompson said. “We’re going to find exactly out how tough we are and how much fight we have in us. That’ll be exciting.”