Off The Bat: Baylor Sweeps Into First, Washington Shows Grit

Image credit: Shea Langeliers (Photo by John Williamson)

Teddy Cahill runs through the biggest storylines that emerged from the weekend. To see the updated Top 25, click here.

Baylor Sweeps Into First Place In Big 12

Baylor came into this season with high hopes and expectations. The Bears last season won the Big 12 Tournament, their first conference tournament title in 25 years, and sent lefthander Cody Bradford and catcher Shea Langeliers to USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team.

Now, in coach Steve Rodriguez’s fourth season in Waco, that pair, plus senior outfielder Richard Cunningham and Freshman All-American shortstop Nick Loftin, were ready to take Baylor to the next step. The Bears came into the season ranked No. 16, their highest preseason ranking in a decade.

After sweeping Texas Christian in Fort Worth this weekend, Baylor is right back where it started. The Bears (30-12, 12-5) are No. 16 in the Top 25 and in first place in the Big 12, leading Texas Tech by 1.5 games with six games to play. They just haven’t gotten there the way Rodriguez planned or anyone expected.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever drawn it up and it goes the way it’s supposed to go,” Rodriguez said. “That’s pretty rare when that happens. When you have kids playing hard and dealing with a physical sport, injuries are going to happen, and you have to figure it out.”

Baylor has had to figure it out this year. Bradford pitched just 7.1 innings in three games before he was lost for the season due to Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Langeliers broke his hamate bone on Opening Weekend and was sidelined for almost three weeks. Even once he returned, it took him a couple of weeks to get going again at the plate, as is often the case with hand and wrist injuries. Righthander Hayden Kettler, who opened the season in the rotation, has battled shoulder soreness, and righthander Logan Freeman missed the first half of the season due to a broken foot.

That Baylor was bitten hard by the injury bug doesn’t make it unique. But the Bears did a great job of weathering the losses. After back-to-back losing weekends in early March—coinciding with Langeliers’ absence—they have gone 20-8 and lost just one series (last weekend at Texas Tech).

One key for Baylor was getting Langeliers back. The Bears went 6-4 without him—though four of the wins came against Holy Cross (19-27) and Cornell (11-22)—and the Preseason All-American has an outsized impact on both their lineup and defense.

But the Bears have also learned to adapt to the injuries.

“One of things I really like about this team is they’ve kind of embraced it,” Rodriguez said. “They have to win ugly at times. Sometimes things are not going to go their way and they have to get down and dirty and they realize that.”

After a tough series at Texas Tech, Baylor bounced back this week. It started Tuesday against Stephen F. Austin with a 10-0 victory in seven innings. After getting blown out 13-3 in seven innings in the finale in Lubbock, Rodriguez said Tuesday’s win got the Bears back on track.

That offense carried over into the weekend, as Baylor outscored TCU, 33-6, and finished the series with back-to-back blowouts of 15-2 and 12-1. The Bears took advantage of some Horned Frogs errors, but took it to their talented trio of starters Nick Lodolo, Charles King and Brandon Williamson. They scored 18 runs (11 earned) on 15 hits and seven walks in 11.1 innings against the starting pitchers.

“What went well was we were able to lay some pretty good swings,” Rodriguez said. “They have starters going 96 mph with Lodolo, King and Williamson. I was happy with the swings, patience, ability for pitchers to throw strikes and let the defense play defense.”

It was a team offensive effort, which has often been the case for the Bears this season. They’re hitting .316/.400/.481 as a team and averaging 7.29 runs per game. Third baseman Davis Wendzel is the team’s leading hitter and working on an All-American season, hitting .385/.500/.647 with eight home runs and 11 stolen bases. But he was added to the team’s injury list this weekend, missing the final two games with soreness.

Langeliers, meanwhile, has gotten back on track at the plate. The junior is hitting .324/.391/.493 with five home runs and is riding a 12-game hitting streak. Rodriguez said Langeliers has gotten back to where he was Opening Weekend.

“He was feeling really good coming into the season and then he had surgery to get the hamate out,” Rodriguez said. “Everyone’s saying he’s struggling. But after you miss two and half, three weeks, you have to get your timing back and then you had a bone removed. It’s not like he gets to go to minors and get his timing there and then come back. I’m unbelievably impressed with how he’s handled his whole season.”

Baylor has also found a formula that works no the mound. Lefthander Paul Dickens (4-1, 3.53) and righthander Jimmy Winston (4-1, 3.08) have established themselves in the rotation, and the Bears have assembled a powerful bullpen, featuring four pitchers—closer Kyle Hill, righthanders Luke Boyd and Daniel Caruso and lefthander Ryan Leckich—that have ERAs under 2.50 in at least 25 innings.

Hill has been the group’s biggest standout. The senior righthander has not allowed a run in 25.2 innings and is 6-0 with six saves. He has 30 strikeouts and just eight walks and attacks hitters with a fastball that reaches 93-94 mph. He’s served in a variety of roles on the pitching staff during his time in Waco and has clearly found a home at the back of the bullpen.

“He’s old and he’s been through it all,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t have to tell him what to do. It’s refining small skills with him, not having to revamp things. He’s always asking the right questions and for me that’s the biggest thing.”

Baylor has positioned itself well going into May. It has a 1.5-game lead on second-place Texas Tech in the Big 12 standings with series against Kansas State and at Oklahoma State left on the schedule. Its RPI is up to No. 22, and while pushing that number into the top 16 by the end of the regular season may be impossible, it still has the Big 12 Tournament to boost its hosting resume. And if the Bears are able to win their first Big 12 title since 2012, that would provide it some leeway in RPI.

As Baylor takes aim at a conference title and hosting a regional over the next month, Rodriguez has a simple recipe for success.

“I’m going to make it simple and say keep winning,” he said.

Washington Keeps Postseason Hopes Alive With Gritty Series Win

Coming into this weekend’s series against Arizona State, Washington had lost four straight series and nine straight Pac-12 games. The schedule had been tough—against Oregon State, at Arizona and Stanford, home against Brigham Young—but that skid had dropped the Huskies off the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Washington was 18-17 and just 5-10 in Pac-12 play. It wasn’t out of the postseason picture, but the path back was narrow. It was, however, a familiar one for the Huskies.

Going into the final weekend of April a year ago, they were 18-18. Their Pac-12 record was nearly reversed at 9-6, but their RPI lagged behind where it stood this year. Washington won a series against Washington State that weekend, sparking a second-half run that saw it go 12-5 and get into the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies made the most of that postseason trip and made their first-ever trip to the College World Series.

Only time will tell if history repeats itself for Washington, but it got off to a good start this weekend. It won its first two games against Arizona State, clinching the series Saturday with a gritty, 10-9 victory in 12 innings. Arizona State (32-10, 13-8) avoided the sweep with an 11-6 victory Sunday, but Washington (20-18, 7-11) got a crucial series win.

Coach Lindsey Meggs said the Huskies needed to win a game like they did Saturday, when they twice erased deficits in extra innings, including a two-out, 10th-inning rally that was keyed by pinch hitters Rollie Nichols and Michael Petrie.

“That’s the kind of game we needed to win,” Meggs said. “Kind of let it slip away, come back find a way to get back in it, get some quality at-bats off the bench. It’s a great team win.”

Washington’s offense showed encouraging signs all weekend, scoring 26 runs to outslug Arizona State’s potent offense. It was the Huskies’ best offensive weekend since the first series of Pac-12 play, when they scored 28 runs in a series win at Oregon.

Catcher Nick Kahle has by far been Washington’s most consistent hitter this season and is batting .364/.508/.550 with six home runs, 40 walks and 17 strikeouts. No other Husky is hitting .300, and only outfielder Connor Blair (.291/.362,.522, 8 HR) has an OPS better than .800.

But Washington got some encouraging signs. DH Joe Wainhouse (.145/.261/.359, 7 HR) homered in both victories, his first home runs in a month after hitting 19 last season. Shortstop Ramon Bramasco (.266/.358/.343) went 8-for-14 with two doubles, a triple and four runs in the series. In Saturday’s victory, he twice delivered a game-tying hit in extra innings.

Bramasco, a transfer from Cerritos (Calif.) JC, has played nearly every inning this season at shortstop, but Meggs said he’s seen him turn the corner offensively over the last two weeks.

“That’s the cool thing about Ramon is he gives us an element that we haven’t had here for a while,” Meggs said. “I think the guys are starting to appreciate that.”

Washington’s pitchers didn’t have their best weekend, but Arizona State’s offense, led by center fielder Hunter Bishop (.369/.498/.815, 18 HR, 11 SB) and first baseman Spencer Torkelson (.354/.463/.669, 15 HR), has a way of doing that to opponents. The Sun Devils hit eight home runs on the weekend, including two apiece from Torkelson, outfielder Trevor Hauver and catcher Lyle Lin.

Washington’s team ERA jumped a quarter of a run on the weekend, but its pitching staff, led by righthanders Josh Burgmann (3-4, 3.82) and Dusty Rhodes (4-4, 3.91) in the rotation and lefthander Stevie Emanuels (2-3, 2.64, 3 SV) in the bullpen, has been up to the challenge more often than not this year.

“That’s all you can ask for out of those guys is to give you everything they have, and if you’re on the mound just keep going,” Kahle said. “We believe in them and trust them.”

Arizona State scuffled on the mound as well. The Sun Devils walked 14 batters, hit eight and threw five wild pitches in the series. Miscues such as those have dogged Arizona State in recent weeks as they have gone 11-10 after starting the season 21-0. This week the Sun Devils slipped to No. 20 in the Top 25 and they now stand four games off the pace in the Pac-12 race.

Coach Tracy Smith said cleaning those free bases up is the key to breaking out of their funk.

“That’s the stuff that has to stop,” he said. “I shouldn’t say stop completely because in baseball you’re going to have that, but the numbers we’re doing it in is totally, totally unacceptable.”

Meanwhile, if Washington is going to go on a second-half run again this year, it will need to build on its momentum from this weekend. It faces a manageable remaining schedule with its next two series coming at Washington State and home against Utah, the two worst teams in the conference. It then travels to No. 1 UCLA and finishes at home against California, in what could end up as a play-in series if the Golden Bears remain on the bubble.

Washington will need to go at least 8-4 in those Pac-12 games, which would give it a .500 conference record and an RPI inside the top 50. That would probably be the very definition of bubble team.

But if any team knows how to finish strong, it’s the Huskies. If they can build on their momentum after beating Arizona State, they could well again surge toward the NCAA Tournament.  

Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Georgia, Louisville, Mississippi State, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, Vanderbilt

No changes to this week’s field. These teams cruised this weekend, except for Georgia, which was swept at Mississippi State. It was a tough week for Georgia, which went 0-4 and this weekend was without ace Emerson Hancock. But as long as the righthander just misses the one start due to soreness, the Bulldogs should bounce back fine. Coming hard is Texas Tech, which has a six-game winning streak and has allowed 17 runs in that stretch. The Red Raiders are a team to watch, but they haven’t had to leave Rip Griffin Park during that streak and they’ve been a different team away from home this season.

Weekend Standouts

Five players or programs who put together big weekends

Coppin State: The Eagles swept Maryland-Eastern Shore to improve to 24-17 on the season, setting the program record for wins in the process. Senior Nazier McIlwain also set the program record for career hits when he collected his 191st on Saturday. Coppin State is leading the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference North Division and is now aiming to take the next step and earn a regionals bid.

Jake Mangum, OF, Mississippi State: It was a big week for Mississippi State, which on Tuesday beat archrival Mississippi in the Governor’s Cup and then swept Georgia. The cherry on top of the week was Mangum breaking former Louisiana State great Eddy Furniss’ all-time SEC hits record, which had stood for 21 years. Mangum finished the series with 355 career hits, 12th most in NCAA history. Mangum is hitting .394/.444/.522 with 20 stolen bases this spring and, at his current pace, would move into a tie for fifth on the all-time hits leaderboard by the start of the SEC Tournament.

Navy: The Midshipmen (34-15, 18-7) clinched their fifth straight regular season Patriot League title after going 3-1 on the weekend and Holy Cross won its series against Army. Navy pitched well all weekend, holding Lafayette and Lehigh to eight runs in four games. Ace Noah Song highlighted the pitching again with 15 strikeouts in a four-hit, seven-inning shutout Saturday against Lehigh.

Keaton Smith, 2B, Nevada: In a wild, 26-15 victory Sunday at Air Force, Smith hit for the cycle, becoming the first Nevada player to achieve the feat since 2012. He went 4-for-7 in the game and needed a home run in the eighth and a single in the ninth to complete the cycle. On the season, Smith is hitting .248/.321/.430 with three home runs.

Xavier: The Musketeers (19-24, 9-2) won a series at Creighton to win the showdown between the top two teams in the Big East. Xavier won Friday’s opener, 8-1, and then split a doubleheader Sunday to take control in the conference race. After starting the year 9-19 against brutal competition in non-conference play, Xavier is 10-5 over the last four weeks and has won series at perennial conference powers Creighton and St. John’s.

Looking Ahead

Three weekend series we’re most excited for

(1) UCLA at (20) Arizona State: The Sun Devils (32-10, 13-8) are in a funk and facing the Bruins (34-7, 14-4) is not an ideal way to get out of it. But Arizona State is a different team at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, where it is 25-3. UCLA has the best pitching staff in the country and is sporting an outstanding 2.64 ERA, but it will have its work cut out for it against the potent Arizona State offense that is averaging nine runs per game.

Oklahoma State at (4) Oregon State: This series lost a little bit of luster after Oklahoma State was swept at Texas Tech, knocking it out of the Top 25, but it still makes for a fun, interregional matchup in early May. This will be a good measuring stick for both teams and a chance to bolster their NCAA Tournament resumes. Oklahoma State (25-16) is trying to earn the chance to host a regional, while Oregon State (31-10-1) is looking to secure a top-eight national seed.

(6) Mississippi State at (15) Texas A&M: The SEC West Division delivers yet another premium matchup. Mississippi State (36-9, 13-8) is riding high after sweeping Georgia in Starkville, while Texas A&M (30-15-1, 11-9-1) is looking to get back on track after getting swept at Mississippi. The Bulldogs are just 5-5 on the road and just a week ago were swept at Arkansas. They’ll be looking to improve on that mark at Blue Bell Park, where the Aggies are 20-7-1.

Two weekend series to watch

Florida Atlantic at Southern Mississippi: As was expected in the preseason, the Conference USA title will be on the line this weekend in Hattiesburg. Southern Miss (29-13, 17-4) holds a two-game lead on FAU (29-14, 15-6), which is coming off a surprising home series loss to Old Dominion. The Golden Eagles are riding an eight-game winning streak that has pushed them more firmly into at-large NCAA Tournament bid territory and adding a regular-season CUSA title would all but secure that. FAU, meanwhile, is firmly on the bubble, and this is its last chance to impress the selection committee before the CUSA Tournament.  

Indiana State at Illinois State: These two teams are tied for first place in the Missouri Valley Conference as they prepare for a big weekend in Normal. Indiana State (32-9, 9-3) has surged into first place thanks to a five-game winning streak, all in MVC action. Illinois State (27-17, 9-3) is coming off a series loss at Dallas Baptist, which is just a game off the pace. Both the Sycamores and the Redbirds have solid NCAA Tournament resumes, but nothing can be taken for granted in the MVC, and conference standings and head-to-head results could be key come Selection Monday.

One midweek game to keep an eye on

(15) Texas A&M at Sam Houston State, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET: After getting swept at Mississippi, Texas A&M (30-15-1) faces a tough test Tuesday at Sam Houston State (24-17). The Bearkats are coming off a good series win against Connecticut and need the RPI boost that winning this game would provide if they’re going to be able to build a resume for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. That should make for an interesting dynamic Tuesday night in Huntsville.

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