The Waco Tribune-Herald: John Werner: Home cooking Bears' reward for job well done

May 30, 2012

Article reprinted with the permission of The Waco Tribune-Herald.

By JOHN WERNER

Wednesday May 30, 2012

On Groundhog Day, I don't think too many people circled June 1 on their calendars with a note: Baylor hosting NCAA baseball regional.

Nobody saw the Bears winning the Big 12 and earning the No. 4 national seed in the country.

Of course, nobody saw the Baylor football team winning 10 games or the men's basketball team winning 30 games and reaching the Elite Eight.

Hosting an NCAA baseball regional for the first time in seven years, Baylor will take on a field made up of Oral Roberts, Dallas Baptist and Texas-Arlington.

Hosting an NCAA baseball regional for the first time in seven years, Baylor will take on a field made up of Oral Roberts, Dallas Baptist and Texas-Arlington.

Rod Aydelotte / Waco Tribune-Herald

As strange as it sounds, the women's basketball team finishing 40-0 and winning the national championship might have been the most predictable accomplishment of Baylor's historic sports year, since everybody knew the Lady Bears were going to field a phenomenal team.

Baylor football fans got to travel to San Antonio for the Alamo Bowl. Men's basketball fans trekked to Albuquerque and Atlanta for NCAA tournament games, while women's basketball fans experienced three different time zones as they dashed to Bowling Green (Ohio), Des Moines and finally Denver in their postseason quest.

While road trips are exciting, home is exactly where the Baylor baseball team wants to be right now.

The best way to get to Omaha for the College World Series is by spending the previous two weeks hitting in your own batting cages, warming up in your own bullpen and relaxing in your own locker room.

That's why those 16 regional host sites across the country are so coveted. Landing a top eight national seed is like finding oil gushing in your outfield.

Hosting for the first time in seven years, the Bears will face a regional field that includes Oral Roberts, Dallas Baptist and Texas-Arlington. If they win, they'll host the Super Regional next weekend against the winner of the Houston Regional that includes Rice, Arkansas, Sam Houston State and Prairie View A&M.

But reaching the World Series is never easy even if the road is paved through your own backyard.

During Steve Smith's 18 seasons as coach, the Bears made their only trip to Omaha in 2005. They got there with a deep pitching staff, a solid defensive team and an offense that hit just .269 but had a knack for getting the clutch hit.

Like this year's team, the 2005 team was a No. 4 national seed and got to host regional and Super Regional rounds en route to Omaha.

Nothing came easily. The Bears took the regional title, 4-3, by outlasting Stanford in 12 innings on a boiling day in Waco. Jeff Mandel won the game with his bat and arm as he blasted a solo homer in the 12th and pitched three near-flawless innings out of the bullpen.

In the Super Regional, the Bears fought back from an opening-game loss to Clemson with a pair of wins. I'll never forget the joy on the players' faces as they circled the field and slapped hands with fans at Baylor Ballpark after a 6-1 win to earn their first trip to Omaha since 1978.

While hosting the regional and Super Regional is the easiest path to Omaha, it's no guarantee.

The 1999 Baylor team that was seeded No. 4 nationally was stunned by Oklahoma State in the Super Regional. National player of the year Jason Jennings was unexpectedly rocked in the opener as the Bears went on to lose in three games.

Baylor's 2000 Big 12 championship team went two-and-out in the regional. The Bears had the misfortune of facing the Bobcats' first-round draft pick Blake Williams in a 6-0 opening loss. Then they were bombed by Florida, 10-1, in the second game, and just like that the season was over.

This year's team has done a great job of focusing on the task at hand. They've never appeared overconfident even as they were winning 24 straight games. When you're not even ranked in the Top 25 at the start of the year, you're ingrained with a certain underdog mentality.

Plus, the Bears are 29-3 at home. The confidence gained from that kind of success is priceless in regional play.

Baseball regionals are always fun, dramatic and intense. They're especially gripping in your own backyard. Home is a great place to be.