Dallas Baptist Flying High In New Conference, Led By Powerful Pitching Staff

Image credit: Ryan Johnson (Photo courtesy of DBU)

Dallas Baptist has been one of college baseball’s most consistent programs for more than a decade. The Patriots are one of six teams to advance to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last eight seasons and have made regionals in 10 of the last 11 seasons, averaging 40 wins per year in that stretch.

So, even while DBU has undergone a significant change in its move this season to Conference USA after nine years in the Missouri Valley Conference, it’s no surprise to look up at the season’s midpoint and see that the Patriots are 24-9 overall and 9-2 in C-USA, a half-game behind first-place Texas-San Antonio (25-8, 9-2). The Patriots are again on pace for a 40-win season and are tracking toward the NCAA Tournament.

That DBU has been able to make such a move—moving up from the ninth-rated RPI conference to the sixth-best league—without missing a beat while also replacing some of its best players from a season ago is a testament to the program and coach Dan Heefner. And while it all feels a bit business as usual for one of the sport’s premier mid-major programs, that would be selling the Patriots short.

After a streaky start—it opened the season with a seven-game winning streak immediately followed by a five-game skid—DBU is 17-4 and has won its first four C-USA series. Its pitching staff has been excellent and ranks 20th nationally in team ERA (3.95) and second in strikeouts (369). The Patriots aren’t an offensive juggernaut, but they rank second in the conference in scoring (7.47 runs per game) and they have an exciting blend of speed (2.28 steals per game, 15th nationally) and power (1.47 home runs per game, 49th nationally). With a solid defense (.975 fielding) as well, it makes for a strong all-around group.

“We like our starting pitching; our bullpen has been really, really good,” Heefner said. “That’s been the key for us. We’ve been really good on the mound and that’s been pretty consistent through most of the season.

“Offensively, I think we’ve got some really good pieces. We know for us to be good it’s more of a team at-bat type of group and I think we’ve been doing a better job of that lately.”

For DBU, it all starts on the mound. In that way, these Patriots feel like a bit of a throwback to some of their best teams in previous seasons. While the offensive environment of college baseball provides important context, last year’s team had a 5.07 team ERA, the program’s worst since 2010. From that team, DBU lost four of its top five pitchers by innings pitched, including righthanders Chandler Arnold and Jacob Meador, who were both drafted.  

DBU didn’t completely rebuild its pitching staff but has seen several returners step into bigger roles. Righthander Ryan Johnson (3-2, 3.25) has moved to the front of the rotation after making nine starts as a freshman in 2022 and righthander Zach Heaton (3-1, 2.12) has joined him in the rotation. Relievers Alec Baker (2-0, 1.82), Brady Rose (5-0, 1.78) and Zane Russell (0-1, 1.69) are stalwarts of a deep, talented bullpen.

At the back of the bullpen is righthander Kyle Amendt (0-1, 1.35, 7 SV), who has developed into one of the best closers in the country. He missed the 2021 season due to injury and wasn’t all the way back in 2022, throwing 9.1 innings over 12 appearances. Now, however, he’s using his over-the-top delivery and hard fastball to flummox hitters. His seven saves are tied for fifth nationally and he’s struck out 33 batters in 13.1 innings.

With weapons like Amendt, Baker, Rose and Russell at their disposal, the Patriots can shorten games behind their quality rotation. That’s long been the blueprint at DBU, which has produced powerful relievers like Chance Adams, Burl Carraway, Seth Elledge and Drew Smith, all of whom were top-five round draft picks.

“That’s always something we’ve prided ourselves on,” Heefner said. “We’re going to take some of our best guys and we’re going to put them at the end of the game, and we have that this year as good as we’ve had. What Kyle Amendt’s doing at the end and Alec Baker, Brady Rose, Zane Russell, we feel like we have three or four closers, which is a tremendous luxury.”

As a staff, the Patriots have struck out 376 batters in 289.1 innings and rank fourth nationally in strikeouts (sixth in strikeouts per nine innings at 11.7). They are on pace to shatter the program record for strikeouts in a season at 600, set in 2019. The Patriots are on pace to pass that mark in just 53 games. Johnson leads the Patriots with 65 strikeouts in 44.1 innings (against just eight walks) and ranks 15th nationally.

DBU’s numbers aren’t as gaudy offensively, but its approach makes it difficult for opposing pitchers. The Patriots have a patient approach at the plate, use a lot of speed on the bases (they rank 16th nationally with 74) and they have a real power threat—their 49 home runs rank 38th nationally and they have 10 players with at least two home runs this season.

Second baseman Miguel Santos (.333/.367/.600, 8 HR) and outfielder Grant Jay (.310/.442/.655, 7 HR) have been DBU’s two most dangerous hitters this season. Slugger Ethan Mann, who missed last season due to a knee injury, leads the team with nine home runs and third baseman Kodie Kolden is the team’s leading hitter (.342).

DBU’s offense has a chance to hit another gear in the second half. Center fielder Jace Grady (.252/.374/.415, 13 SB) and shortstop Luke Heefner (.248/.351/.407, 8 SB) are both about 100 points below their OPS marks from a year ago when they were two of the team’s top hitters. If they are able to find their groove—and Grady seems to be locked in, as he’s on a seven-game hitting streak and batting 15-for-34 with four home runs during it—and outfielder Nathan Humphreys (.320/.436/.485, 12 SB), who has missed the last week due to injury, returns healthy, this starts to look like a deep, dangerous lineup.

“I definitely like the pieces and I think the more experience they get, it’s an offense that can just keep getting better and better,” Heefner said.

DBU this weekend takes a seven-game winning streak into a series at Florida Atlantic (22-12, 7-5), which ranks No. 39 in RPI and is in the mix both near the top of the conference standings and in the race for an NCAA Tournament bid. It’s the kind of high-level C-USA series the Patriots envisioned when joining the league. So far, DBU has traveled to Charlotte and Louisiana Tech, two of C-USA’s premier programs, with visits to FAU, Rice and UTSA still to come.

“It’s a great league,” Heefner said. “Very competitive. It’s what we thought it was going to be as far as it’s a high level of Division I baseball, pretty intense series, so it’s been pretty fun.”

DBU is still feeling out its new conference (and it is still changing—this summer Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, FAU, Rice and UTSA are leaving for the American Athletic Conference and Jacksonville State, Liberty, New Mexico State and Sam Houston State are joining) but so far, so good. The Patriots are enjoying their new digs and are storming ahead with an eye on another postseason run this June.

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