We are less than 10 games into a season of 60-plus games, yet some helpful trends are starting to emerge.
To start with, Texas A&M is at the top of the league through Wednesday’s games, and the Baylor Bears sit a game back. What wasn’t expected was that Texas Tech would share the top spot with the Aggies of A&M and that Kansas, thought to be one of the less-talented teams in the conference, would start out winning five of its first seven games, all on the road, thanks to a league-leading earned-run-average of 1.29 as a team.
Also a little out of the ordinary, nationally ranked Oklahoma and Texas are only 7-7 between them after three weeks of action. Oklahoma, which led the conference in hitting a year ago with a .313 composite average is only batting .261 in its first seven games, and the Sooners’ normally sound pitching staff has been yielding over six runs a game and ranks next to last in the conference.
Big 12 Player of the Year last season, outfielder Tyler Naquin of Texas A&M, is off to another strong start this year, hitting a league-leading .536 through his first nine games.
Last weekend, Oklahoma State head coach Frank Anderson picked up his milestone 600th win as coach of the Cowboys. Anderson is one of seven Big 12 baseball coaches with 300 wins or more with their present teams. Sunny Golloway of Oklahoma also recently earned his 600th career win (compiled with both OU and Oral Roberts University).
The level of nonconference competition picks up considerably this weekend. Texas and Texas Tech are both competing in the Houston College Classic, which is being played at Minute Maid Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros. Among the six teams in the Houston tournament are Rice and Arkansas, both perennial national powers in baseball and both ranked in the country’s top 25 again this season.
Oklahoma State also faces a big test this weekend. The Cowboys travel to Ft. Worth to take on No. 18-ranked TCU, a team that will begin seeing on a regular basis next season when TCU becomes part of the Big 12.
Today is Part II in our series previewing Big 12 baseball in 2012. Today we count down the teams projected to finish one through five in the conference..
1. Texas A&M Aggies
With two of the best starting pitchers in the conference returning and the league’s most productive offensive performer and Player of the Year (Tyler Naquin), the Aggies are in good position to close out their final season in the Big 12 with a conference crown. Right-handers Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling combined for 23 wins and only six losses in 2011, and Stripling’s 14 victories tied for the national lead. Both recorded identical 2.29 earned-run averages. Center-fielder Krey Bratsen was second in the conference a year ago with 31 stolen bases. Texas A&M’s Achilles heel may be the team’s late-inning relief pitching and replacing arguably the country’s best closer last season, John Stilson.
2. Texas Longhorns
Year in and year out, the Longhorns show up as one of the teams, if not the team, to beat in the conference. When you bring in 13 consecutive top-15 recruiting classes, that is what results. Texas has won seven Big 12 regular-season titles in baseball and four conference tournament championships in the 15 years the Big 12 has been in existence. The Longhorns also have two national championships during that time (2002 and 2005). Texas loses one of the best pitchers in the country in Taylor Jungmann, who was drafted 12th overall in the 2011 MLB draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. The Horns bring back a solid nucleus, however, from last year’s starting lineup, including Big 12 Freshman of the Year Erich Weiss, a third baseman who hit .348 last season, and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Stopper of the Year, closer Corey Knebel. Texas also has senior left-hander Sam Sheppard and his .189 ERA for another season.
3. Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners lost a number of experienced players from its 2011 roster, including pitching ace Michael Rocha and two of the team’s best hitters, Garrett Beuchele and Cameron Seitzer, both the sons of former major-league players. But OU has a most-capable group returning, led by shortstop Caleb Bushyhead and first-baseman/outfielder Max White, the team’s two best hitters coming into the 2012 season. Despite losing pitching ace Rocha and his ten wins and 1.75 ERA to graduation, the Sooners’ pitching staff, coach Sunny Golloway believes, is the team’s strength this season. It all starts with the two left-handed starters from last year, Dillon Overton and Jordan John. The Sooners were highly disappointed not being able to make it to Omaha last season and back-to-back return appearances in the College World Series. With OU having won 40 or more games in four of Galloway’s six full seasons as head coach, including 41 in 2011 and 50 the year before, expectations are high again this year.
4. Baylor Bears
Baylor returns eight position starters from last year’s team that won 31 games and finished fifth in the conference. Gone are All-Big 12 starting pitchers Logan Verrett and Brooks Pinckard, who also played some in center field. Both were selected in the MLB draft. Junior southpaw Josh Turley is expected to be the anchor in the Bears’ weekend rotation this season, and he may be joined as a starter by Max Garner, who was the closer in the 2011 season. Baylor will be led offensively by junior first baseman Max Muncy, who led the team in all three triple-crown categories (.322 average, 9 home runs, 44 runs batted in). Freshman All-American Logan Vick is back for his junior season in center field. Vick is likely to be flanked at the corners in the outfield by a pair of freshman.
5. Kansas State Wildcats
The Wildcats lose All-Big 12 performer Nick Martini and infielder Jason King, the team’s top two hitters last season, but all of its other offensive contributors are back again in 2012. King’s younger brother, Jared, will be back in center field after earning Freshman All-American honors with a .302 batting average, 8 home runs and 40 runs batted in his first collegiate season. Blair Deford returns at catcher after sitting out all of last season with an injury. Deford hit .340 his freshman season in 2010. Second-baseman Ross Kivett, a sophomore, was the Wildcats’ third leading hitter last spring with a .314 average. K-State will need to replace the conference’s top bullpen tandem a season ago in late-innings reliever Evan Marshall and closer James Allen. The bulk of the starting pitching will fall on senior right-hander Matt Applegate, who started 16 games last season and sophomore left-hander Shane Conlon.
Iowa State does not participate in baseball. The Cyclone discontinued their NCAA baseball program after the 2001 season.