Jan. 30, 2006
Baylor entered the 2005 season with the most experienced roster in the program's history. While the Bears cannot make that boast this season, the 2006 squad is not without experienced veterans. Baylor returns 11 letterwinners and three other players who have seen action in their career.
Included in that list of returning letterwinners are four players who earned All-Big 12 Conference honors last season -- C Zach Dillon (.304, 2 HR, 43 RBI in 2005), RHP Ryan LaMotta (5-2, 2.12 ERA, 82 K, 7 Sv), RHP Jeff Mandel (4-0, 1.91, 27) and LHP Cory VanAllen (8-4, 4.02, 68). Dillon and LaMotta were ABCA All-Midwest Region selections in 2005, while Mandel and VanAllen participated in the USA Baseball National Team trials following last season.
Baylor also returns several regular starters in the lineup: OF Seth Fortenberry (.192, 5, 17), OF Chase Gerdes (.257, 1, 23), 1B/OF Mike Pankratz (.198, 3, 16), 2B Kevin Russo (.286, 3, 36) and OF Kevin Sevigny (.230, 3, 23).
All nine of those players can boast something not even the experience-laden 2005 team could at the beginning of last season: they all have played in a College World Series. And that experience is something head coach Steve Smith believes will benefit the 2006 team.
"Once a program accomplishes major goals such as advancing to Omaha, it becomes an expectation and belief of subsequent players that they will do the same or even more," Smith said.
Therefore, Baylor enters the 2006 season with the same ultimate goal as the 2005 team: Omaha.
Still, the loss of 10 key players, including five position starters, two starting pitchers and a closer, cannot be ignored. But Smith said the Bears accept the challenge.
"The makeup of this team is very typical of highly successful college programs," Smith said. "It consists of a core of veteran players who have known much success both individually and collectively. But it also consists of new players who want to be part of a program that has established a great tradition of success over the last 10 years.
"All successful college programs learn to deal with turnover caused by the departure of players to professional baseball. This is certainly not the first time the Baylor program has faced this situation."
One does not have to look far to see evidence of such. Much like this season, Baylor looked very young and inexperienced at the dawn of the 2000 season. Gone were familiar faces Jason Jennings, Bryan Loeb, Eric Nelson and Jon Topolski who led the Bears to 50 wins and an NCAA Super Regional in 1999. The 2000 team responded, going 45-17 and winning the Big 12 Conference.
Baylor shared the Big 12 title with Nebraska last season. The Bears' top two run producers in conference play last season both return -- Dillon (20 RBI in league play) and Russo (21). Also, Sevigny (.271 in Big 12 action) and Gerdes (.270) both hit significantly better in conference games last season.
On the mound, VanAllen posted a 4-1 mark in Big 12 play and his ERA was just shy of one full run lower in conference play than non-conference play. In VanAllen's first career Big 12 start, he allowed one earned run on three hits in 6.1 innings for a victory at top-ranked Texas. Five of LaMotta's seven saves came in Big 12 action, in which he held opponents to a .214 batting average with 11.57 strikeouts per nine innings.
Clearly, proven players return for the Bears in 2006.
No where will Baylor look more different in 2006 than on the infield where no position will be filled by a returning starter. Russo, who started all 70 games at third base last season, moves to second base for the 2006 campaign just as Michael Griffin did for his senior season last year.
"Kevin will give us an experienced player in the middle of the field," Smith said. "I expect he will handle the move from third with ease."
Russo played shortstop and second base in junior college at San Jacinto College prior to transferring to Baylor last season. He will be backed up at second by junior Jake Rippee, who as appeared in 31 games over the past two seasons.
Joining Russo up the middle will be true freshman Beamer Weems at shortstop. The slick-fielding Weems will be the first true freshman to start at shorstop for the Bears since Jace Brewer in 1999 and only the second since 1990.
Redshirt freshman Drew Bias looks to be the opening-day starter at third base. Smith calls Bias a very solid defender and could provide a steady bat in the lineup as he matures. True freshman Seth Hammock also should see playing time at the hot corner.
While the other three infield positions appear to be set entering the season, the list of possibilites at first are seemingly endless. Mandel (.205, 2, 8), who filled in at first late in the season last year when Kyle Reynolds was injured, joins Pankratz, Hammock and true freshman Ben Booker as possible candidates for the job.
"Ben is another extremely talented freshman whose bat will likely need to be in the lineup," Smith said. "He may wind up in the outfield before his career at Baylor is over. Pankratz has been battling knee issues for over a year. If he can get healthy, I believe we will see his offensive production increase significantly. Mandel made a big splash late in the season last year. Jeff is as fine an athlete as we have ever had, and it will be difficult to keep him off the field when he is not pitching."
While there are holes to fill in the infield, Baylor returns plenty of experience in the outfield where Fortenberry, Gerdes and Sevigny all have starting experience. That trio also gives Baylor one of the nation's fastest outfields and a solid defensive group in the outfield.
Gerdes is a prototypical center fielder, while Fortenberry and Sevigny can play any of the three outfield positions. And while Gerdes and Fortenberry may have a slight step on him in the speed department, Sevigny tied for the conference lead with nine outfield assists last season, including gunning down two runners at home in the same game against Texas Tech.
"We have three very experienced and talented players returning in the outfield," Smith said of the trio. "With these guys on the field, we have never had a more athletic group in the outfield."
Smith said Booker and Hammock could see time in the corner spots, while center fielder Paul Miles has started making a push for playing time. True freshmen Kenton Gedwed and Cliff Springston also vie for chances.
Dillon, who split time at catcher and designated hitter last season, will be the main man behind the dish in 2006. The fifth-year senior blossomed into one of the Big 12's better hitters as a junior, hitting .327 in league play. Dillon was at his best with runners on base, hitting .354 in such situations and .360 with runners in scoring position. He was second on the team a year ago with a .308 two-out average.
"In Zach Dillon, we have the consummate leader behind the plate," Smith said. "Zach has a great understanding of the game and is exceptional working with pitchers."
Four newcomers wait in the wings behind Dillon, most noteably junior college transfers Matt Sodolak and Matt Czimskey. Both hope to regain form after off-season arm surgeries. Freshmen Tim Hartland and Joe Pawelek, who also is a member of Baylor's football team, both have begun to impress with the bat.
"More time is needed to get a feel for them defensively," Smith said.
LaMotta, Mandel and VanAllen return to anchor the pitching staff. VanAllen is sure to be in the starting rotation, and Smith expects either LaMotta or Mandel to join the southpaw in the fold with the other being key in the bullpen.
VanAllen is 11-6 in his career with a 3.96 ERA. In conference play, he is 5-1 with a 3.41 ERA and a .252 opponents' batting average.
While LaMotta and Mandel have plenty of experience on the mound, neither has extensive starting experience.
LaMotta has appeared in 95 games as a Bear, all but three as a reliever. However, he has proven an ability to pitch more than a few innings. He tossed 8.1 innings in a start and win against Southern Mississippi in the championship game of the 2003 NCAA Hattiesburg Regional. Last season, he entered the game against Kansas at the Big 12 Tournament in the first inning and held the Jayhawks scoreless for 8.1 frames.
Mandel has made four starts as a Bear, all coming in midweek games last season. He went 2-0 in those starts.
As for the bullpen, it will be a host of new faces as six newcomers and three others with minimal experience vie for opportunities.
"We need to get strong contributions out of the bullpen from a number of new faces such as Owen Reid, Springston, Jake Weghorst and Reed Woytek," Smith said. "This also is the time for several veterans with limited experience to assert themselves."
That list includes right-handers Nick Cassavechia (0-0, 7.94, 4) and Kerr Foster (0-0, 6.75, 4) and lefty Jason Thompson, who returns to the mound this season after seeing spot duty at first base and left field over the past two years. Cassavechia and Foster appeared in five games each last season as true and redshirt freshmen, respectively.
Two familiar faces with no previous experience join the mix: RHP Erik Forestiere and LHP Drew Jeffcoat. Forestiere, who was redshirted as a member of Baylor's 2004 squad, returns to the Bears after a year at McLennan Community College. Jeffcoat sat out last season as a medical redshirt.
Last season, Baylor's strength of schedule ranked seventh nationally as the Bears were the only non-California team in the top 10. Baylor's strength of schedule has ranked 11th or better nationally in each of the past five seasons.
"We have traditionally played as good of a pre-conference schedule as possible," Smith said. "The 2006 schedule is no exception. We will learn much about our team prior to Big 12 play."
Along with traditional non-conference foe Long Beach State, the Bears face Stephen F. Austin, California and fellow 2005 College World Series semifinalist Arizona State in weekend series. Only the Long Beach State series is on the road. Stephen F. Austin has resurrected its program for the 2006 season after a 10-year hiatus. Arizona State (16th), Long Beach State (22nd) and California (25th) all begin the season ranked nationally in the Baseball America Top 25.
Baylor's final non-conference weekend is the inaugural Quala-T Imprints Baylor Classic in which the Bears welcome Louisiana Tech, Michigan and Pacific to Baylor Ballpark for a round-robin tournament.
The following weekend, the Bears open Big 12 play at home against Kansas. Along with the annual split series with Texas and Texas A&M, Baylor hosts Nebraska and Oklahoma State for weekend series this spring.
Baylor plays 34 home games this season, including each of its first 11 and 22 of 29 non-conference games. Traditional rival Rice visits Baylor Ballpark April 11.
Last season, a school-record 109,621 fans attended games at Baylor Ballpark. Baylor ranked 16th nationally in total attendance and 17th nationally in average attendance (3,045). The Bears average home attendance in 2005 was the second-highest in program history, just 12 fans per game shy of the school mark established in 2003.
Baylor is 167-65 since moving into Baylor Ballpark during the 1999 season. The facility has hosted three NCAA Regionals and two NCAA Super Regionals.
2006 marks the first season since 1999 that Baylor does not appear in the Baseball America Preseason Top 25. That year, the Bears entered the rankings in late February and reached as high as No. 7 before falling to Oklahoma State in the NCAA Waco Super Regional.
By virtue of a No. 23 ranking in the Collegiate Baseball Preseason Top 30, this marks the eighth consecutive season in which Baylor has been ranked in at least one of the four major national polls to begin the season.
Baylor's 2006 schedule is rated as the nation's 10th toughest, according to preseason rankings at www.BoydsWorld.com. Georgia, which ranks ninth, joins Baylor as the only non-California school in the top 10.
Baylor plays 18 games against teams ranked preseason by Baseball America and 22 against teams ranked preseason by Collegiate Baseball. The Bears posted school records last season for number of games against ranked opponents (28), number of wins against ranked opponents (18) and number of wins against top-10 opponents (9).
From the weekend of Feb. 17-19 to March 3-5, Baylor plays three consecutive weekend series against opponents ranked preseason.
Baylor plays 23 games against 10 teams that appeared in the 2005 NCAA Regionals. The Bears play 11 games against four teams that appeared in the 2005 NCAA Super Regionals and nine games against three teams that reached the College World Series last season.
Baylor Ballpark has ranked 21st or better nationally in average attendance every year since the facility's opening in 1999, including a program-best ninth in 2001. Baylor ranked 16th nationally in total attendance last season with a school-record mark of 109,621 and 17th nationally in average attendance at 3,045 per game, second all-time at Baylor.
Since the start of the Big 12 in 1997, the Bears have the league's best conference record at 156-91 (.631). Baylor leads all conference schools in total first- and second-team All-Big 12 selections (42), first-team Academic All-Big 12 selections (45), NCAA appearances (7) and Major League Baseball draft selections (51).
The Bears are the only Big 12 Conference program to have been ranked in the top 10 nationally at some point during each of the past eight seasons (1998-2005).
Baylor is the only Big 12 school to have never suffered a sub-.500 season in conference play.
The Bears join Oklahoma and Oklahoma State as the only programs to have qualified for every Big 12 Tournament.
NCAA No. 50 Senior Major League Baseball Draft prospect (Baseball America)
All-Big 12 Conference (RosenblattReport.com)
All-Big 12 Conference (Baseball America)
Big 12 No. 7 Major League Baseball Draft prospect (Baseball America)