There's a different feel around the Dallas Baptist program than there used to be. Winning a regional for the first time has a way of transforming the culture for any program, and that has certainly been true for the Patriots, who accomplished the difficult task of earning an at-large bid as a Division I independent last year and then got within two wins of the College World Series.
"They definitely have the confidence," DBU coach Dan Heefner said of his players. "If we play the game right and do what we're capable of doing, I think they know now. In the past they had that belief that, 'We're kind of the underdog,' and loved playing in those situations. Now we walk in and have the belief that we should win, truly expecting to win those games, and there's disappointment when we don't. I'm not saying we didn't have that in the past, but it's been heightened."
So far, Dallas Baptist has managed expectations well, avoiding a post-super regional hangover by going 17-9 through the first seven weeks. Last year's at-large resume was built largely by accruing midweek wins against regional powers—and the Patriots haven't shied away from scheduling plenty of challenging midweek games this year either, including Tuesday's contest at Texas Christian. But this year, DBU is playing a Missouri Valley Conference schedule instead of an independent schedule, so the Patriots are using their top three pitchers in their weekend rotation, hoping a strong weekend record can carry them into a regional again in their final year as an independent (they join the Western Athletic Conference next year). Heefner said his pitching staff is deeper than ever, which keeps DBU competitive in midweek action.
Though the Patriots were swept in week two at Rice in their biggest potential RPI-enhancing series, they took advantage of the next-best RPI series on their schedule, winning two of three against Missouri State (No. 39 in the updated Boyd's World pseudo-RPI rankings) this past weekend. That helped DBU climb to No. 55 in the RPI—into striking distance of the at-large bubble.
"As far as our weekend series the rest of the year, this was definitely our biggest one," Heefner said.
The bullpen came up huge in DBU's wins Friday and Sunday, just as it has all season. Heefner says his bullpen is definitely team's biggest strength. Righthanders Jake Johansen and Stuart Pudenz combined for 10 strikeouts in 5.2 innings of hitless, scoreless relief in Friday's win, and Pudenz threw two more scoreless innings Sunday to pick up the victory.
The 6-foot-5, 221-pound Pudenz is a physical, max-effort closer with a 92-93 mph fastball that reaches 95, a split-finger and a hard slider. The 6-foot-6 Johansen began the year as a starter before the Patriots realized he was better suited to attack hitters in the bullpen without having to worry about pacing himself. The redshirt sophomore is DBU's top prospect thanks to a 92-94 mph fastball that has regularly touched 97, Heefner said. He mixes in a hard cutter and curveball, and Heefner said improving his command of the latter pitch will be critical for him.
Fourth-year junior Michael Smith gives the Patriots a third quality bullpen option they can rely upon. Smith has plenty of experience as the setup man, and he has continued to thrive in that role this year, going 1-1, 2.08 with 25 strikeouts and 10 walks in 26 innings. Smith works in the 88-91 range and has an out pitch in an exceptionally hard slider at 82-85.
The rotation has a quality one-two punch in freshman righthander Cy Sneed (4-2, 2.63) and senior lefty Taylor Massey (4-2, 3.38). Sneed is the rare Idaho prep product to head to the Lone Star State for college ball and make an immediate impact. A 35th-round pick by the Rangers last year out of Twin Falls High, Sneed comes from a Christian family that placed a high value on the faith-based education at Dallas Baptist, and Heefner said Sneed found the Patriots, not the other way around. As soon as Heefner saw the video that Sneed's father sent of Cy pitching, he could tell the arm worked and knew the Patriots needed to make a trip to Idaho to see him.
"He's really different," Heefner said. "To be a freshman and come in—I've heard from so many people that see him pitch and say, 'There's no way he's a freshman.' The presence on the mound, the way he carries himself, he's so confident, and can just pitch. It's 87-90, he locates well and has a really good understanding of how to work hitters. It's pretty uncanny."
Just as the Patriots had their hands full replacing key pitchers like Brandon Williamson and Chris Haney from last year's super regional team, they faced a challenge in filling the shoes of key bats like Jason Krizan (who set the NCAA single-season doubles record last year) and Tyler Robbins. The Patriots have had to overcome injuries to two of their key hitters. First baseman Ryan Behmanesh broke his hamate bone before the season then got hit by a pitch to break his hand again after playing 10 games. Junior-college transfer Ronnie Mitchell, the team's second-leading hitter, missed three weeks with a broken hand of his own. He is back in the lineup now, and his two-run homer Friday wound up being the game winner.
But Heefner said the injuries have made his team learn to win by manufacturing runs and stealing more bases, which should pay benefits even when Behmanesh returns and the lineup is back at full strength.
Two players have emerged, starting with second baseman Austin Elkins (.365/.432/.608, 3 HR, 19 RBI), who leads all healthy regulars in batting. He's returned to his outstanding freshman year form of 2010 (in between, he hit .245 with the new bats as a sophomore). Elkins is an athletic switch-hitter with intriguing ability.
"He's probably one of the most talented position players we've had in quite a while," Heefner said. "Krizan last year was an unbelievable hitter, and set the doubles record. Elkins is not quite the pure hitter Krizan is, but he's pretty fast and explosive. He's not real big, but he can drive the ball and really, really run, so that makes him pretty dangerous."
Outfielder Boomer Collins is also dangerous, leading the team with five home runs. A transfer from Nebraska who had to sit out all of last season because of NCAA transfer rules, Collins brings solid speed, a strong arm and good righthanded pop to the lineup.
The top returning hitter from last year's team, center fielder Landon Anderson, got off to a slow start, but Heefner said he thinks Anderson (.287/.378/.351) is starting to get locked in and looks poised for a hot streak. And even when Anderson is struggling offensively, he always brings outstanding defensive ability in center.
Dallas Baptist is determined to prove last year was the natural next step for a program that has been building positive momentum for some time. There are plenty more good things ahead for this program, which will be a great fit in the WAC with fellow new members Texas State, Texas-San Antonio and Texas-Arlington.
In the meantime, the Patriots have their sights set on getting back to regionals. It's an ambitious goal for any independent program, especially after the personnel losses DBU sustained a year ago, but as Heefner said, expectations have changed for his program.
"Now," he said, "we need to manage the pressure they're putting on themselves a little bit."
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