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Bears may be coming around at just the right time for Big 12 play

Posted: March 12, 2014 - 3:43pm  |  Updated: March 13, 2014 - 12:05am
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Athletics - Baseball vs UT-Arlington - Baylor Ballpark - 02/18/2014  Alyssa Lorfing
Alyssa Lorfing
Athletics - Baseball vs UT-Arlington - Baylor Ballpark - 02/18/2014
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The fall and early spring for college baseball coaches is spent evaluating talent, determining how best to maximize the strengths of each player and pitcher and then putting them into a position to succeed when the season starts.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

That’s where Baylor coach Steve Smith is right now.

“You’ve got to let it play out on the field,” Smith said. “You can’t think that you can let it play out during fall practice and let the thing play out during the brief time you have to get ready (in the spring).

“You can look at it a certain way in intersquads or practice or whatnot, and you always expect that what you see in those situations will translate to game time. But it doesn’t always, for different reasons. And so when it doesn’t, then you’ve got to make changes on the fly, and you don’t have a lot of time to do that.”

The problem for the 8-8 Bears is their non-conference schedule has been stacked, opening at No. 19 Arizona State, plus a trip to California that forced three games to be postponed due to rain, then coming back to host No. 4 Cal State-Fullerton last weekend.

But it might have been that Fullerton series that has helped Baylor turn the corner going into Big 12 Conference play this weekend against No. 23 Texas Tech (15-3).

After getting boatraced 11-0 in the Friday game, in which they committed six errors and had just three hits, the Bears finished strong, winning a 1-0 pitches duel on Saturday and holding on for a 5-4 win in the series finale.

It marked the first time the Bears had ever won a non-conference series at home against a team ranked in the top five in the Baseball America preseason poll.

“First and foremost, we have to pitch and play defense,” said Smith, who is entering his 20th season at Baylor. “You do those to things you give yourself a chance to win, and that’s what happened on Saturday and Sunday. We’re not going to scare anybody offensively and we’re not going to scare anybody on the mound. We just have to play the game and make good decisions.”

The Bears have plenty of experienced players, but most of them are seeing their first extensive action, either in the field or on the mound, for the first time in their careers as most are true or redshirt freshmen. It has led to some growing pains, particularly in the field where Baylor ranks last in the Big 12 with a .950 fielding percentage, having committed 30 errors in 16 games.

Gone are last year’s three top hitters, including the entire left side of the infield. One of the moves Smith made in the fall was to move senior Lawton Langford from second base to shortstop, but that move didn’t take, and so Langford moved back to second and is actually the only infielder in the same spot he occupied a year ago.

The Bears have five players — Langford, senior Grayson Porter and juniors Logan Brown, Duncan Wendel and Adam Toth, who all had at least 116 at-bats a year ago. As a team the Bears are hitting just .240, which ranks last in the Big 12.

But Smith has also gotten contributions from some key freshmen in catcher Matt Menard, infielder Aaron Dodson and outfielder Darryn Sheppard.

“You look out on the field and this is true, that against Fullerton and last night (vs. Houston) we had half the guys on the field are doing it for the first time, either as freshmen or redshirt freshmen,” Smith said. “We’ve got some good, young guys, but we do have some consistency and performance issues.”

The Bears also have much of the same situation on the mound.

Senior Dillon Newman and junior Austin Stone bring back 23 of Baylor’s 55 starts on the year, with Newman nailing down the Friday role and Stone solidifying Sunday. In between is junior Brad Kuntz, a left-hander who missed all of last season after suffering two fractured vertebrae. Stone and Kuntz both possess ERA’s under 1.75 and rank in the top eight in the league in ERA, while Newman is at 4.19 after giving up six earned runs in his last two starts covering nine innings.

Senior right-hander Josh Michalec leads the conference with six saves, and in between, Smith has a mix of experience and youth that he feels will make the Bears ready to go when Big 12 play begins on Friday.

“We’re pretty healthy,” Smith said. “The older guys are the ones who are going to have to do it and be good for us in the league. They’re tested and ready. We’ve got some young guys that if we have to play them and throw them out there too early that they’re not going to be ready for it. But we have about nine or 10 hitters and about seven or eight arms that are the guys who are ready for it.”

george.watson@lubbockonline.com

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Texas Tech baseball

Who: No. 23 Texas Tech at Baylor

When: 6:35 p.m. Friday, Noon Saturday, 1:05 p.m. Sunday

Where: Baylor Ballpark, Waco

Records: Texas Tech 15-3, 0-0 in Big 12; Baylor 8-8, 0-0

Radio: KTTU 104.3 FM

TV: Friday, Fox College Sports; Saturday, Fox Sports 1; Sunday, Fox Sports Southwest

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