Originally Published: April 26, 2012

Baylor can breathe after streak comes to an end

By Walter Villa
Special to ESPN.com

In some respects, this has been the year of the Baylor Bears.

The school's women's basketball team -- led by 6-foot-8 center Brittney Griner -- won a national title, capping a 40-0 season and setting an NCAA single-season record for wins.

In football, quarterback Robert Griffin III became the first Baylor player to win the Heisman Trophy and was the second overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft.

[+] Enlarge
Troy Taormina/US PresswireBaylor's 24-game winning streak came to an end on Tuesday night after a 4-1 loss to UT-San Antonio.

And now, Baylor (36-8) has the hottest team in college baseball, winning 25 of its past 26 games and moving up to No. 4 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches' Poll.

"It's a great feeling -- it's contagious," Bears junior first baseman Max Muncy said of the mood on campus. "The Baylor nation is loving it, and they're supporting us. For the first time since I've been here, you can hear people talking about Baylor baseball."

The Bears' 24-game win streak -- which set school and Big 12 records -- was snapped Tuesday with a 4-1 loss at Texas-San Antonio.

Muncy said the defeat allowed his team to breathe.

"When you have a streak like that, it puts even more pressure on you," Muncy said. "This will let us relax."

Steve Smith, who is in his 18th season as Baylor's coach, said the streak "had to end sometime."

If Smith doesn't sound crushed by the defeat, it's because he's not. The Bears started a new run on Wednesday with a 6-4 win over Texas-Arlington.

It extended their home win streak to 18 games, but, beyond that, Smith appreciates the way his team is playing -- and not just the results.

His defense is solid, his hitters don't chase many pitches, and his pitchers will battle even though they won't break any radar guns.

"I wouldn't describe our team as hot," Smith said. "I would describe it as a business-like approach on a team that is locked in to playing the same way every day."

Baylor's top two starters, Trent Blank and Josh Turley, are a combined 15-0 with sub-2.20 ERAs.

But Smith has used 19 pitchers this year, the highest number since he took over, and the Bears are just fourth in the nine-team Big 12 in ERA (3.20).

The strength of the Bears is the league-leading offense (.314 batting average and 6.6 runs per game). They also have eight .300 hitters.

Muncy, who has started 127 games in a row, arrived at Baylor in the fall of 2009 hoping to earn perhaps one start a week. He's done a lot better than that, becoming an immediate starter and hitting .300 or better in all three of his seasons so far.

"I think Muncy can hit in the big leagues," Smith said. "He has lightning hands and lightning bat speed. After Muncy, I think [Logan] Vick is also a big league hitter."

Smith said his team is tired right now because finals are next week, and that puts a lot of stress on the players, who have been staying up late to get their academic work done.

After this weekend's two-game series against New Mexico State, the Bears are off until May 9. Smith expects his players to get "their second wind" once they return from finals.

Baylor has a big series against Texas May 17-19 -- two of the three games are in Austin -- and then the conference tournament begins May 23.

Then come the regionals, and Smith believes what happened in last year's NCAA tournament has inspired his team to work harder. Baylor backers need not be reminded, but for anyone who forgot, the Bears lost a three-run, ninth-inning lead in the regional final against Cal and blew a chance to host a super regional against Dallas Baptist.

"It was the most devastating loss of my career," Smith said. "Our guys were so raw after that game -- stone-cold quiet.

"I told our guys that out of great adversity comes great accomplishment. I look back at that game and at what we've done so far this year, and I say 'wow.'

"What we've done this year was born on that day."

Places to be this weekend

By Eric Sorenson
Special to ESPN.com

1. No. 9 Stanford (26-10, 8-7 Pac-12, No. 13 RPI) at No. 11 UCLA (27-10, 11-7 Pac-12, No. 5 RPI)
UCLA Stanford Jackie Robinson Stadium, Los Angeles

The Pac-12 title isn't on the line but you get the feeling that a national seed could be. The winner will certainly have the inside track on staying home for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. The pitching is pretty even, but the offense, surprisingly, leans toward the Bruins, despite all that versatility in the Cardinal's batting order 1 through 9. Bruins bats hit at a .314 pace and need to pressure Stanford's defense, which will be playing without do-it-all shortstop Lonnie Kauppila the remainder of the season.

2. No. 17 Arkansas (29-12, 9-9 SEC, No. 16 RPI) at No. 2 Florida (32-10, 11-7 SEC, No. 1 RPI)
UF UA McKethan Stadium, Gainesville, Fla.

This is a really tough stretch for the Razorbacks with the Gators on the road this weekend followed by South Carolina's visit to Fayetteville, Ark., next weekend. It is also their last chance to make a statement for getting into the top 16 for NCAA tournament seeding, let alone in contention for a top eight national seed. They're going to have to lean on their SEC-best pitching, especially since so much of the Gators' success comes from timely hitting.

3. New Mexico State (30-11, 7-2 WAC, No. 20 RPI) vs. No. 4 Baylor (35-8, 18-0 Big 12, No. 4 RPI)
BU NMSU Baylor Ballpark, Waco, Texas

You've got to wonder what the BU mindset will be. Are the Bears taking this as a "week off" from Big 12 play and an opportunity to regroup? Or will they still be dead set on bouncing back after seeing their winning streak come to an end? Either way, they can't overlook the powerful Aggies. This will be the best offense the Bears will see all year, as the Aggies are not only 10th nationally in hitting at .318, but have the best walks total in the country. They've earned 271 free bases, a full 42 better than second-best Florida State.

4. No. 12 Texas A&M (29-12, 9-6 Big 12, No. 18 RPI) vs. No. 24 Texas (24-14, 11-4 Big 12, No. 45 RPI)
UT A&M Olsen Field, College Station, Texas, and Disch-Falk Field, Austin, Texas

One of the best rivalries in college baseball, if not college sports, will have its final go-round before the Aggies move on to the SEC. Expect the crowds and intensity to be at an all-time high. The pitching matchup in College Station on Friday night will be huge with A&M's Michael Wacha going up against UT's Nathan Thornhill, two wildly talented pitchers who can't seem to stay consistent.

5. No. 19 Ole Miss (27-14, 9-9 SEC, No. 14 RPI) at Mississippi State (25-16, 8-10 SEC, No. 43 RPI)
MSU Ole Miss Dudy Noble Field, Starkville, Miss.

This is another toss-out-the-record-books rivalry. Having seen this rivalry up close and personal last year, I can attest to the fact that the barbecues get ratcheted up a tidbit more here. MSU's pitching is a little more reliable right now, even though there is a large disparity between the two offenses, with the Rebels tied for first in the SEC at .313 and MSU way down at .261. But look for MSU pitcher Chris Stratton to set the tone early for the Bulldogs with his penchant for double-digit strike totals. From there, Caleb Reed and the Bulldogs' bullpen will decide things one way or the other.

Q&A with Georgia's Dave Perno

By Eric Sorenson
Special to ESPN.com

One of the more intriguing teams this late in the season has to be Georgia. Unlike last year, the Bulldogs didn't play a rugged nonconference schedule, so their RPI is No. 39, which makes them a borderline call for an at-large berth coming out of the SEC. But Dave Perno's charges are in the late stages of a rugged April schedule which saw them play Kentucky, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Florida and now LSU in successive weeks. That's harsh. But the Dawgs have improved each week and could be in line for another late-season rush to the NCAAs. I caught up with Coach Perno the morning after their midweek loss to Georgia Tech at Turner Field in downtown Atlanta.

ES: You've been to the College World Series three times, so you know how tough it is to get there. But aren't things a little out of hand when you get put on the "hot seat" for one bad season?
DP: Well to be fair, we took some backward strides in 2010. We really did. There's no way for me to defend it -- we were horrible. So whenever you have that type of year around here, it just comes with the territory. We really were the victim of our own success, because people around here expect it. What they don't realize is how competitive and how invested the programs in this league are. Our teams win national championships. Anything less than that is viewed as a letdown.

ES: I'm not sure anyone has a tougher month of a season than you guys do in April. Do you handle things any different when you play a Florida or an LSU, or is it just business as usual?
DP: The thing is, we've played OK. We hadn't won a lot. But we've been competing to the last out, playing hard and we're still breathing life. As things stand right now, we're still on schedule to be a 7- or 8-seed in the SEC tournament. That's good enough to be in a [NCAA tournament] regional. As I said, we haven't won a lot, but the good thing is that our schedule is favorable down the stretch. We've got two of the last three weekends at home and the road trip is at Alabama. There are no gimmes in the SEC, but at least we'll have a chance for a strong finish.

ES: You guys came really close to winning the series at Florida. Did that series tell you what you guys were capable of?
DP: Well, prior to last night I would've told you we had turned a corner on our season after that Florida series. Then we got beat by [Georgia] Tech [Tuesday] night and we took another few steps back. I really thought we'd play better. If we go down to LSU, play tough and hang in there, regardless of results, I feel like we can make a run. The schedule lightens up, we don't play any more two-game midweeks and we can put some things together with all our home games. This will allow us to get rested up and reload.

ES: Do you see this team making it into the NCAA tournament?
DP: We've already played the majority of the top teams in our league and the remaining ones are all winnable. I feel like we can make a run. We're going to keep fighting and keep working. I'll say this: If I've ever had a group of guys who deserve a break or two, it's this team.


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