In the midst of Baylor’s opening series four weeks ago as the Bears were being swept by Maryland, head coach Steve Rodriguez kept a level head.
We made some uncharacteristic mistakes, Coach Rod repeatedly said. It’s the first weekend. Maryland’s a very good team. We’re going to be fine.
Turns out he wasn’t kidding.
The Bears (7-5) have played much better and, not coincidentally, won with far more regularity since that 0-3 start against the Terrapins. Baylor has won seven of its past nine games, including four wins over ranked opponents, highlighted by a pair of triumphs over No. 23 UCLA and No. 8 LSU at last weekend’s Shriners College Classic in Houston.
Rodriguez isn’t one to necessarily say “I told you so,” but when asked about what changed, he basically said that the Bears started playing like the Bears. That’s why he never sounded the panic alarm.
“Watching how we played, that’s the thing, is you start to do things that are more characteristic of how we do things and how our guys play,” Rodriguez said. “Watching each one kind of settle into who they are as players and people, it starts to make a little more sense and gives us a lot more confidence as well.”
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Perhaps nobody is striding onto the diamond with more confidence than Tyler Thomas. The Bears’ fifth-year senior ace has pitched splendidly all season, but he reached his career zenith in last Friday’s 2-1 win over UCLA at Minute Maid Park. Thomas hurled 8.2 scoreless innings before allowing a solo home run in the ninth, striking out a career-high 10 batters and walking none. He breezed through most innings in three-up, three-down fashion.
“It’s fun. Everything is going quick,” said Thomas, the reigning Big 12 Pitcher of the Week. “You love a quick ball game, you love to go to the dugout, sitting and relaxing for a minute. The team scores a couple of runs, you get back out there, and you shut them down, let your team hit again.”
Echoing his head coach’s sentiment, Thomas said not much has changed for the Bears since the Maryland series. They knew they could play better, they knew they could win games. It was just a matter of going out and doing it.
“I don’t think there’s a huge change,” Thomas said. “We’ve cleaned up a few things, but really it’s confidence. Confidence in ourselves, we know we can go out there and execute. We know we can go out and throw strikes, we know we can handle anything with anyone. We finally realized that against Duke, and we were rolling from there.”
This weekend’s series against Columbia will mark Baylor’s final weekend tuneup before Big 12 play starts next week against TCU. Other than wins, the BU players said they want to keep stockpiling momentum. They want to deliver in big moments when given the chance, like freshman Casen Neumann did on Wednesday night, when he smacked a three-run, pinch-hit home run in the eighth inning to lift his team to a 6-4 road win over Abilene Christian.
“It’s just a matter of going out and playing the baseball that we know how and keeping the focus and the target on the game, and not so much your opponent,” Rodriguez said. “And that’s what I think our guys have done really well is, they’re not so much worried about what the other color uniform is as opposed to just playing against the game and executing offensively and defensively. And when you do that, you’re going to have some success.”
The pitching matchups for this weekend’s Baylor-Columbia series are as follows: Friday — Baylor LHP Tyler Thomas (2-1, 1.31 ERA) vs. Columbia RHP Sean Higgins (1-1, 6.00); Saturday—BU RHP Jake Jackson (1-2, 6.75) vs. CU RHP Joe Sheets (0-0, 1.50); Sunday—BU RHP Will Rigney (0-0, 6.52) vs. CU RHP Billy Black (0-2, 4.50). … Rodriguez said that he envisions stretching out Rigney and letting him work more innings as the season progresses, eventually working his way up to a 100-pitch count. Rigney has averaged around four innings per start as he has worked his way back from thoracic outlet syndrome.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism