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THERE FOR THE TAKING: Bears Hoping to Earn NCAA Berth at Big 12 Tourney

May 22, 2013

By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider

After an intensely crazy Big 12 race that saw five teams go into the final weekend with a chance to win it - and one game separating second place and seventh - the Big 12 Championship in Oklahoma City is "anybody's tournament to win, absolutely."

Baylor coach Steve Smith, whose team limped into the tournament losing five of its last six conference games, said any of the eight teams could win it. "And I hope it's us."

"Knowing that is wide open and up for grabs," said senior shortstop Jake Miller, "and you get an automatic bid if you win it, that really puts a little hop in our step."

And the Bears aren't alone. Other than the tournament winner, the only team pretty much guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament is 15th-ranked and top-seeded Kansas State (39-16).

At No. 63 in the updated RPI rankings, Baylor (27-25) goes into the Big 12 Championship likely needing to win it and earn the automatic berth to earn a postseason bid.

"(Kansas State) just won the conference championship and they're feeling great," Smith said. "Everybody else . . . I don't think we should all be on the bubble, like I don't think (Oklahoma State and Oklahoma) should be on the bubble. If we don't get four in, I would be very, very surprised. I just think the league is that strong. We've got a bunch of really good teams whose RPIs are not very good. And that has happened many, many times. So, we'll see."

Originally scheduled for bracket play and starting Wednesday, the tournament was moved back a day and switched to pool play after the devastating tornado that blew through on Monday. The tornado hit neighboring Moore, Okla., and left a confirmed 24 dead.

"We debated canceling the tournament in deference to the devastating tragedy in Moore, but were encouraged by Oklahoma City leaders and the Oklahoma City All-Sports Association to go forward," said Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby. "We believe the tournament can serve as a testament to the strong Oklahoma spirit and the resiliency of the Oklahoma people."

In the adjusted pool-play format, the fifth-seeded Bears will open against 24th-ranked and fourth-seeded Oklahoma (36-19) at 9 a.m. Thursday, followed by K-State at 12:30 p.m. Friday and Texas Tech (25-28) at 9 a.m. Saturday. Oklahoma State (39-14) is seeded second and is in the other pool with West Virginia (31-25), Kansas (31-24) and TCU (28-26).

Winners from the two pools will play in the championship game at 1 p.m. Sunday in a game that will be broadcast by FSN. All other games in the tournament will be televised by Fox College Sports (FCS).

"We are going in with the mindset that we do need to win this and have to win this," Miller said. "But at the same time, when we're out on the field, we're not giving ourselves any added pressure. We're just going to keep playing and let things fall where they may."

Miller and senior third baseman Cal Towey were part of the 2010 team that came within two outs of a Big 12 Championship title. The Bears swept through pool play undefeated and had a 3-1 lead entering the ninth before Texas A&M rallied to tie it with two runs in the ninth and won it on Brodie Greene's two-out, two-strike walk-off homer in the 10th.

"We had it and gave it away," said Towey, a unanimous first-team selection on the All-Big 12 team that was announced Tuesday.

"My freshman year, getting a little taste of that championship game, it's still in there," Miller said. "And we definitely want to get back to that. We want another ring, that's for sure."

This is a team loaded with postseason experience. In addition to Miller and Towey, senior first baseman Steve DalPorto is a three-year starter who got into the Big 12 tournament three years ago as a defensive replacement; fourth-year junior Lawton Langford starts at second base; and the pitching staff includes seniors Max Garner, Crayton Bare and Kolt Browder, who threw 2.1 innings in a 6-3 win over Kansas in the 2010 tournament.

"I think everybody that we've got that has been to this tournament is a plus," Smith said. "There's a certain level of comfort just knowing where you're going to stay, where you're going to eat; just the whole routine of the practice day and the pre-game routine. This will be a new experience, I guess, for West Virginia . . . but everybody's been there so much that it won't be a big deal."

Although the Bears have never won it, they've had success in the Big 12 Championship, reaching the final six times. Their last conference tournament championship came in the SWC in 1993.

Towey, who is hitting .302 with four homers and 43 RBI, said he is "trying not over-think stuff" or focus on the fact that this could be his last collegiate games.

"I just want to relax and have fun with all the other guys," Towey said. "It's just a baseball field, go out and have fun and try not to think about all that sentimental stuff and get all wrapped up in it."

Thursday's game against Oklahoma could be a rematch of the classic April 12 pitcher's duel between the Sooners' Jonathan Gray (8-2, 1.69 ERA) and Baylor junior right-hander Dillon Newman (3-3, 2.99). Towey ended that one with a walk-off homer in the ninth off OU reliever Jake Fisher in a 2-1 victory, and then hit a grand-slam shot in a 12-10 Sunday win that clinched the series.

"It means nothing," Smith said of Baylor's series win over the Sooners. "We had three really, really close ballgames . . . those two against them coming down to home runs by Towey. If you're on the other side of that equation, I don't think Oklahoma's shaking in their boots. They probably think we got as many breaks as we're going to get in that series."

In losing two of three at Texas Tech last weekend, the weekend pitching rotation of Garner, Newman and sophomore Austin Stone that had been so solid all year struggled in a big way. Newman was the only one that got past the fourth inning as the starting trio gave up 18 earned runs on 20 hits and eight walks in 11.2 innings.

Garner wound up in the hospital after his roughest outing of the year, including a seven-run fourth, while Stone "got beat by the umpire," Smith said.

"I think it turned out to be the same kind of stuff we all get with allergies and bronchitis," Smith said of Garner. "He decided he doesn't have time for that."

Thursday's starter will be either Garner or Newman, but Smith said he is "interested to see Stone's next time out."

"Austin got beat by the umpire. The zone is what it is, and you have to adjust to the zone," Smith said of Stone, who gave up five walks and hit two batters in two-plus innings in Saturday's 15-8 win. "It's what pitchers would refer to as a tight zone. So, you can't let that beat you; and it got to him."

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