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Balanced Bears Ready for 2003

Jan. 30, 2003

Determined. Balanced. Focused. Ambitious.

All great characteristics for a single individual; even better features to find in an entire team.

Such is Baylor Baseball, the 2003 edition. With six starters returning from a year ago and possibly the deepest pitching staff in team history, the Bears are aiming to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the program's back-to-back College World Series teams with a return to Omaha in June.

The Bears' DETERMINATION has shown up in strong summer and fall performances. Ten Baylor players spent their summers in the Cape Cod League, the premier college baseball summer league.

David Murphy, Trey Webb and Trey Taylor were each named among the Cape's top 30 prospects. Zane Carlson led the league in saves and was named team MVP. Steven White clinched his team's Divisional Championship win. Michael Griffin finished 11th in the league in hitting. Paul Witt stole over 30 bases in the Jayhawk League. Even freshman Tyler Bullock hit .444 in six games with the USA Junior National Team.

BALANCE has been one quality lacking the last few years, but should not be an issue in 2003.

"We have the potential to be really balanced between offense, defense, pitching, power and speed," Smith said. "Defensively, we could play four shortstops on the infield, and three great players in the outfield. Michael Griffin could have the best left field arm in the Big 12, if not in the country.

"We also have some speed that we didn't have a year ago, and some balance right and left. Paul Witt and Trey Webb are the marquee speed guys, and if Blake Womble factors in, he's better than all of them," Smith said. "It's certainly not a slow team. Whether it's a basestealing team or just first-to-third speed, we're a pretty athletic team. Top to bottom, this is probably the fastest team we've had.

"Murphy, Ford and Griffin are all power guys, plus Mark Saccomanno has some pop. I think we'll be better offensively."

Above all, though, FOCUS may be the team's strongest intangible.

"I really believe this group, led by the veteran guys, is a very focused group," Smith said. "There are a lot of days in the fall when things can get monotonous and players just go through the motions. That didn't happen this fall. There was a lot of energy, and they kept things intense. That indicated to me that these guys have a lot of purpose."

Much of that can be attributed to having an experienced squad; with seven returning starters, this year's lineup returns as many veterans as any recent Baylor team. In the outfield, senior Chris Durbin and junior David Murphy are locked into center and right field, respectively.

Left field will probably be a returning starter, but at a new position. Sophomore Michael Griffin, who started 59 games at third base last season, is the most likely candidate to fill the third outfield spot. Should Griffin also see time on the infield, freshmen Blake Womble and Kevin Sevigny or sophomore Reid Brees could take his place in left.

Playing left field during the fall, "Michael ran balls down, threw guys out, cut off balls in the gap," Smith said. "There's no doubt he can play left field, and be very good."

After an excellent showing during fall practice, sophomore Josh Ford has all but locked up the nod as the team's starting catcher. Redshirt freshman Zach Dillon will spell Ford on occasion, with freshmen Tyler Bullock and Matt Forestiere also possibilities for depth behind the plate.

On the infield, junior Trey Webb is the only returnee locked into a spot. A second-team all-Big 12 performer a year ago, Webb will again be the team's starting shortstop.

First base could belong to senior Mark Saccomanno, who missed all of 2002 with a shoulder injury after starting 59 games at shortstop as a junior in 2001. Dillon and Ford could also see time at first base.

"It's really been a plus to have Saccomanno back," Smith said. "He's gotten stronger and filled out physically. To have had the experience he's had in the middle infield, he brings a lot to the table at first base. He would help us most at first base because of his size [6-2] and his hands."

The second and third base spots are up for grabs beginning the spring. Sophomore Paul Witt will almost assuredly man one of the two positions. Freshman Kyle Reynolds (son of former big leaguer Craig Reynolds) is also a possibility at either second or third. Griffin and Saccomanno could also make appearances at third base.

Senior Ross Bennett, another of the Bears' 2002 All-Big 12 selections, will likely retain his position at designated hitter against right-handed pitchers. Forestiere and junior Jared Clements could battle for starting time against lefties.

On the mound, the Bears return a highly-experienced rotation in seniors Steven White and Jared Theodorakos and sophomore Trey Taylor. White and Theodorakos were each drafted last summer but chose to return for their senior seasons, while Taylor was a second-round pick in 2001 before spurning the pros for Baylor.

"All the veterans did really well this fall. White has never thrown better; he's come up with an exceptional breaking ball. Theo, too, has never been better. Taylor showed a remarkable improvement in throwing strikes and in his composure," Smith said.

On the other end, junior Zane Carlson appears to be fully recovered from last spring's surgery that ended his season early. After receiving a medical redshirt last year, Carlson -- Baylor's all-time career saves leader -- has the inside track on reclaiming the closer's role.

"Zane made it very clear that the condition he had was a big part of the struggles he suffered through the past couple of years," Smith said. "After the fall, I ranked Carlson as the No. 1 guy on the staff, and I'm convinced his role could be anything we need it to be. If we needed him to start for us, I have no doubt that he could do it, and do it well."

Should Carlson be moved into the rotation, redshirt freshman Abe Woody, sophomore Sean Walker and freshman Ryan LaMotta could all be considered to take his place in the bullpen.

"All four guys have been closers," Smith said. "Carlson set the Cape Cod career saves mark this summer at Chatham. Abe Woody at Hays was the best closer in the Jayhawk League. Sean Walker had six saves at Hyannis in the Cape this summer, and LaMotta has done it well in high school. Even Michael Griffin has some closer possibilities.

"I don't know that you need to have just one guy. The most important spots are the guys getting you into the late innings."

Other names expected to contribute on the mound in some way, shape or form are freshmen Russell Reichenbach, Andy Pape and Mark McCormick. McCormick in particular is something of a question mark, having been a highly-touted prospect last spring before sliding to the 11th round in the MLB draft and spending all fall with Baylor getting back into shape.

"He's here at a really good time, because despite the exposure he got and the expectations that go along with that, he won't be forced into doing anything he's not ready to do," Smith said. He will become a major factor and have an impact in time.

"I love the depth. We've got some experienced guys coming back, with five very experienced guys. There are probably three or four freshmen who should be able to make pretty big contributions."

The team's AMBITIONS show through in the way they look at themselves individually and as a team.

"Their expectations could be no higher," Smith said. "They are going about their jobs with the purpose of fulfilling their expectations.

"Our goal is to be the kind of program that is always in a position to win the conference championship. This program hasn't been to the College World Series since 1978; we want to be in a position to play in an NCAA Regional, a Super Regional and go on to Omaha.

"Beyond that, we want to grow, to continue to improve. We want both our players and our coaches to grow."

That ambition is seen in a schedule that includes nine 2002 NCAA Tournament teams, including two CWS teams in Nebraska and national champion Texas.

"We play a schedule that reflects our goals. We want to be the best we can be. We ask a lot of our players, and they have a strong commitment to success and to our program," Smith said.

"At the same time, the schedule allows our fans to see the best college baseball has to offer. They get to experience it, to be a part of our season and a part of our success. They get to be a part of the team; I think they're a huge part."



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