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College : : Story
Preview: Big-time in the Big 12
Kendall Rogers        
Published: Thursday, April 19, 2012

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It’s truly fitting that sophomore second baseman Lawton Langford is the rock to Baylor’s offensive lineup.

As the Bears prepare for rival Texas A&M this weekend with an amazing and nation-leading 21-game hitting streak, it isn’t elite prospect and power hitting first baseman Max Muncy, or ultra-talented outfielder Logan Vick leading the charge. Instead, it’s the 5-foot-10, 165-pound, surprising infielder doing the honors.

Coming from the small Texas town of Uvalde, Langford had some transitions to make as a true freshman for the Bears two seasons ago. He didn't make an impact his first year in the program, instead having a redshirt campaign. Then, as a redshirt freshman last season, he batted just .222 with three RBIs and a .327 on-base percentage.

Life has changed in many more ways than one for Langford this year. He’s no longer the .222 hitting infielder. Now, he’s hitting a team-best .383 with 17 RBIs and a .500 OBP, one of the nation's best hitters, coincidentally for the nation’s hottest teams.

"One thing I worked on during the offseason was getting much stronger," Langford said. "In addition to that, I worked pretty hard on just improving my approach at the plate. I try to just stay in there and be a line-drive hitter, while working the count. I'm not one of those people that goes out there and tries to be someone they're not."

Langford's incredible offensive campaign thus far has caught everyone's attention, especially that of Baylor hitting coach Steve Johnigan.

"The most important thing about Lawton other than his increased strength is the simple fact he knows who he is. He knows he's a contact hitter who controls the bat really well," he said. "He understands and accepts that, and he's learned to adjust to that. He never tries to do things he's not able to do. He's just not that type of guy.

"He does a superb job of finding ways to get on base. He has great command of the strike zone as a hitter," Johnigan continued. "When he puts the ball in play, he's probably hitting .475. He does still strike out a little too much, but that's something we're working on. He has a great swing."

In addition to his increased strength and better approach at the plate, Langford has received another motivational boost this season, stemming from a tough family situation earlier this year.

Langford's higher calling came in January via a call from one of his brothers. Voice cracking and obviously shook up, Lawton was told that his younger brother, 14-year-old Nolan, had been in a serious four-wheeler accident. He had to get to San Antonio as soon as possible.

Nolan, whose hobby was riding around on four-wheelers, had turned onto a very familiar and little traveled country road around Uvalde, Texas. On this day, a fast-approaching truck blind-sided Nolan's four-wheeler, sending he and the four-wheeler tumbling across the highway.

"I knew it wasn't good. I just hopped in the car and headed to San Antonio. Really, at that point, I didn't know what happened or how severe it was," Lawton said. "I figured nothing too bad happened, just a broken leg or something, where it would just take some time to recover."

Turns out the situation was more serious than Lawton imagined. Nolan didn't have life-threatening injuries, but doctors were forced to amputate his leg -- at 14-years-old.

"It was one of those things. You see people in life with amputated limbs, but you never think it could happen to someone in your family," he said. "It shocked me. It was a punch in the gut. It showed me what life really is all about."

Since Nolan's accident, Langford has had a fresh outlook on life, one where baseball is just a side show. It's just a hobby, something he just loves to do. In the past, he'd get frustrated when he struck out or made a mistake in the field. Now, he has learned to brush off those type of failures in baseball. After all, Lawton knows more than anyone things could be a lot worse.

Even more of a motivating factor is that despite his road blocks, Nolan and Lawton's parents still make a point to travel 270 miles each way to Waco for his games, having not missed a home series since the Bears returned from a road trip to the West Coast to face UCLA.

"He [Nolan] has taught me to never take anything for granted. There are going to be some days where some players don't want to be on the field. I don't have those kind of days anymore," he said. "My brother's spirit has been so high and he's the type that'd do anything to get on a baseball field. Honestly, I just think God for each day I have."

With Nolan always in attendance at weekend home games and Lawton's magic bat leading the charge, the Bears have evolved into one of the nation's elite offensive units this spring. They finished last season with just a .265 batting average, but are up 52 points this season at .317.

In addition to Langford, several other Bears have risen to the occasion at the plate. For instance, senior catcher Josh Ludy hit just .278 last season, but is second on the team in hitting with a .370 average, six home runs and 46 RBIs. Meanwhile, Logan Vick and Max Muncy both are meeting expectations, hitting .326 and .318, respectively, with very solid overall numbers.

"We knew these guys had the talent to do something special offensively, but they had to believe in it. They've bought into that vision," Johnigan said. "From the leadoff hitter to the nine-hole, everyone in our lineup has a chance to really help us out a lot."

Baylor continues to live by its motto, "process before outcome". The Bears were just one win away from reaching an NCAA Super Regional last season before dropping two-straight games to California, which eventually moved on to the College World Series.

Now, motivated more than ever and sitting at 32-7 overall, 15-0 in the Big 12, the Bears appear to have a team primed to get to Omaha for the first time since 2005. But they're not talking about it.

As the Bears have done all-season long, they continue to take things game-by-game, a process that has worked to near perfection.

And most importantly, they take absolutely nothing granted.

Baylor's leading hitter, Lawton Langford, knows that best.


WHO'S HOT

Baylor (32-7) -- What an incredible run the Bears are on right now. They’re doing everything right. From the starting and relief pitching being solid to the offense being ultra productive, the Bears are in fantastic shape headed down the stretch. It’ll be interesting to see how BU finishes the season with rivals Texas A&M and Texas still on the schedule.

Maine (20-14) -- Steve Trimper’s Black Bears might not have a chance to reach the NCAA postseason via at-large bid, but they’re certainly making their case in the America East title race. Maine is 7-0 in the league, but most impressive is the fact it has won 13-straight games. The Black Bears don’t face Stony Brook, another solid America East squad, until the final weekend of the regular season.

Purdue (29-5) -- The Boilermakers might’ve had some doubters a few weeks ago, but that’s certainly no longer the case. They continue to dominate opposing teams in the Big Ten, and are in fantastic shape, already up 2 1/2 games in the conference regular season title race. Furthermore, the Boilermakers are winners of nine-straight games with a road series against Nebraska coming up this weekend.

LSU (30-7) -- It’s pretty impressive to see the run the Tigers are on right now. They had a relatively easy week on the diamond last week, earning a home weekend series sweep over Alabama. Meanwhile, as a whole, the Tigers have won nine of their last 10 games and are in the midst of a six-game winning streak. Next up for LSU is a huge road series against Kentucky.

TCU (21-13) -- It only was a couple of weeks ago the Horned Frogs surely looked like they didn’t belong in the NCAA postseason. Now, things are looking a little differently as we head toward the final stretch of the regular season. The Frogs are tied with New Mexico atop the MWC standings, are 7-3 in their last 10 games and are winners of seven-straight games.


WHO'S NOT

Santa Clara (18-16) -- It’s evident at this point it’ll take some time for first-year coach Dan O’Brien to really turn the corner with this program. Though things started well this spring, the Broncos are suddenly last in the WCC with a 1-8 mark, 3-7 in their last 10 games and are losers of four-straight contests with Pepperdine next up this weekend.

South Alabama (13-23) -- The Jaguars actually have been decent at times this season, but just can’t seem to push the right button when it comes to consistency. South Alabama has a rather respectable 8-7 mark in the Sun Belt, but that’s where the positives end. The Jaguars are 2-8 in their last 10 contests, and will need to win the Sun Belt tournament to make the postseason.

Stephen F. Austin (14-23) -- Johnny Cardenas typically does a very good job with the Lumberjacks, but this season seems to be the exception. The ‘Jacks just can’t seem to get in a groove, and now sit 7-11 and near the bottom of the Southland Conference standings. Furthermore, they’re just 2-8 in their last 10 games and losers of four-straight contests.

Mississippi State (21-16) -- This weekend’s home series against Tennessee could be it in terms of an NCAA postseason berth should the Bulldogs not take care of business. The Bulldogs have been hampered by injuries and other issues. They currently sit near the bottom of the SEC standings with a 5-10 league mark. Meanwhile, they’re 3-7 in their last 10 and are losers of four-straight contests. It’ll be interesting to see how the Tennessee series transpires this weekend.

Virginia Military (11-25) -- The Keydets usually show some strong fight in the Big South title race, but that’s not happening this season. VMI is in some serious trouble down the stretch, sitting at just 4-11 in the Big South. Meanwhile, they’re losers of seven-straight contests and have lost eight of their last 10 contests. Something must give for VMI.


PITCHING MATCHUPS TO WATCH

San Francisco RHP Kyle Zimmer vs. Gonzaga LHP Tyler Olson
The Dons haven't exactly met expectations this spring, but they certainly can't blame that on the talented right-handed pitcher, who has steadily sat in the low-to-mid 90s with his fastball this spring. Zimmer also is some people's pick to be the top pick in the upcoming MLB draft. Meanwhile, Olson has been very steady for the Zags. Olson is 4-0 with a 2.11 ERA in 64 innings of work. He also has struck out 45 and walked 14, while teams are hitting him at a .250 clip. Meanwhile, Zimmer is 3-3 with a 2.79 ERA in 61 1/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 65 and walked 10.

Georgia Tech RHP Buck Farmer vs. North Carolina LHP Kent Emanuel
The Yellow Jackets need a strong showing against the Tar Heels this weekend, and will look to the junior right-hander to provide a boost on Friday. Farmer has a fastball that tops out in the 90-94 range, while he has a legitimate four-pitch mix in his arsenal. Meanwhile, Emanuel isn't a top-tier prospect, but is an excellent lefty who pounds the strike zone. Farmer is 5-3 with a 3.34 ERA in 59 1/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 74 and walked 18, while teams are hitting him at a .254 clip. Meanwhile, Emanuel is 5-2 with a 1.82 ERA in 59 1/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 52 and walked 12, while teams are hitting him at a .245 clip.

Stanford RHP Mark Appel vs. Arizona State RHP Brady Rodgers
Two of the nation's premier pitchers square off on Friday when the Cardinal meets the Sun Devils in a pivotal Pac-12 series, particularly for the Cardinal. Appel has been sitting in the mid-to-upper 90s with his fastball this season, and has solid secondary stuff, while Rodgers is a very refined pitcher, sitting 90-93 with his fastball, while also displaying a solid four-pitch mix. Rodgers is 6-1 with a 1.12 ERA in 72 innings of work. Meanwhile, he has struck out 55 and walked seven and teams are hitting him at just a .205 clip. Meanwhile, Appel is 4-1 with a 2.86 ERA in 66 innings of work. He also has struck out 68 and walked 18, while teams are hitting him at a .205 clip.

Baylor LHP Josh Turley vs. Texas A&M RHP Michael Wacha
The Bears and Aggies square off in arguably the most important Big 12 series this season. Turley has been a pleasant surprise for the Bears this season, showing a lot of consistency and good command. Meanwhile, Wacha is one of the nation's premier arms and will be a relatively high draft pick in the first round of the upcoming MLB draft. He has been sitting consistently 90-94 with his fastball, while his changeup also has been tremendous. Turley is 5-0 with a 2.02 ERA in 58 innings of work. Meanwhile, he has struck out 47 and walked 12, while teams are hitting him at a .252 clip. Wacha is 5-0 with a 2.42 ERA in 63 1/3 innings of work. He has struck out 66 and walked 11, while teams are hitting him at a .224 clip.

Arizona RHP Kurt Heyer vs. Washington RHP Aaron West
This is a very important series for both teams, but even more so for the Huskies, who are hoping to get on the good side of the NCAA bubble in the coming weeks. Heyer will sit 88-91 with his fastball and has good off speed stuff. Meanwhile, West can toss it 90-94, tops 95, with his fastball, and he also has a good slider as part of his arsenal. Statistically-speaking, Heyer is 6-1 with a 2.09 ERA in 69 innings of work. He also struck out 57 and walked 10, while teams are hitting him at a .247 clip. Meanwhile, West is 4-3 with a 2.94 ERA in 52 innings of work. He has struck out 34 and walked seven, while teams are hitting him at a .254 clip.


TEN SERIES TO WATCH

No. 26 Georgia at No. 4 Florida -- Fresh off a home series loss to Ole Miss last weekend, the Bulldogs hit the road this weekend to face a very tough Florida team. The Gators are coming off a hard-fought road series win over Tennessee, and get talented right-handed pitcher Hudson Randall back in the rotation this weekend. This series should go the Gators' way, but the Bulldogs are a team with a lot of upside. It's imperative Michael Palazzone and Alex Wood put together good starts against the Gators.
PG Pick:
Florida

No. 22 Miami (Fla.) at No. 1 Florida State -- You typically find out the most about teams when they face a little adversity. That's precisely the situation with Miami entering the weekend. The Hurricanes will be without stud catcher Peter O'Brien this weekend and for a couple of more weeks, making offensive production even harder to come by with the 'Canes not exactly possessing a highly potent lineup. Meanwhile, the Seminoles are coming off a so-so week on the diamond, and make a change in the weekend rotation with Scott Sitz moving to the rotation. The veteran hurler has a 2.86 ERA in 34 2/3 innings of work.
PG Pick: Florida State

No. 3 LSU at No. 2 Kentucky -- It really doesn't get any better than this in April. The Tigers have been playing an outstanding brand of baseball lately with power pitchers Kevin Gausman and Ryan Eades, and strike thrower Aaron Nola leading the way in the weekend rotation. Meanwhile, the Tigers also have been much better offensively. Meanwhile, the Wildcats have one of those lineups that just takes care of business in opportune situations with freshman outfielder Austin Cousino leading the way. The pitching staff is very solid with an incredibly strong bullpen leading the way.
PG Pick:
Kentucky

No. 5 Baylor vs. No. 8 Texas A&M -- In what could be the final series for a while between the two in-state rivals, the Bears and Aggies butt heads this weekend. The Bears are playing a phenomenal brand of baseball right now and have a very solid ace starting pitcher in Josh Turley. But what has made this team special is their timely hitting and tenacious offensive approach with Lawton Langford, Max Muncy and Logan Vick leading the charge. Meanwhile, the Aggies are good offensively and have one of the nation's premier one-two punches on the mound in Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling. Still, the bullpen -- particularly middle relief -- must be better this weekend against the sizzling Bears.
PG Pick:
Baylor

No. 9 South Carolina at No. 38 Auburn -- The Tigers haven't played particularly well lately and haven't performed at a high level with some key injuries. But things get very serious this weekend as they play host to South Carolina in a very important series if they want to stay in good shape in the NCAA postseason race. The Gamecocks suddenly are playing a good brand of baseball, winners of three-straight series with freshman left-handed pitcher Jordan Montgomery leading the charge. It's time for Auburn, though, to take a step forward.
PG Pick:
South Carolina

No. 44 Georgia Tech at No. 6 North Carolina -- The good news for the Yellow Jackets is they won't have to face North Carolina stud third baseman Colin Moran this weekend, as he continues to sit out with an injury. The bad news is they still have to face North Carolina. The Jackets certainly have some premier arms in Buck Farmer and Dusty Isaacs, but they've had their cage rattled lately with so much uncertainty with Luke Bard and Matt Grimes still out because of tendinitis issues. Still, this is a must-win series for the Jackets to stay on the good side of the bubble. Meanwhile, Kent Emanuel and Benton Moss have done a great job in the UNC rotation, while the one-two punch of R.C. Orlan and Michael Morin has been crazy good on the back end of the bullpen.
PG Pick: North Carolina

No. 20 Arizona State at No. 13 Stanford -- The Cardinal has plenty of chances to make up ground at the end of the season, but if they want to compete for a national seed, a home series win over Arizona State is a must. The Cardinal is having some offensive issues, most recently with shortstop Lonnie Kauppila being gone for the year because of a left-knee injury. But they still have a solid weekend rotation with right-hander Mark Appel and left-hander Brett Mooneyham -- both elite prospects -- leading the way. Meanwhile, Arizona State is playing very well right now and has a strong pitching staff of its own with none other than top prospect Brady Rodgers as the headliner. Stanford knows what's at stake here.
PG Pick:
Stanford

No. 7 UCLA at No. 25 Oregon State -- The Beavers appeared to be well on their way to earning an NCAA Regional host just a couple of weeks ago until they ran into a buzz saw down at Arizona State. OSU has regained its confidence with six-straight wins, but they weren't wins over elite teams. It's imperative Ben Wetzler starts the weekend on the right foot. Meanwhile, the Bruins continue to play a good brand of baseball, coming off a road series win over Arizona last weekend. UCLA's pitching staff has been impressive this spring, but its ability to hit with Jeff Gelalich and others leading the way is most impressive.
PG Pick: UCLA

No. 16 Arkansas at No. 23 Mississippi -- The Razorbacks once again are shuffling up their weekend rotation this weekend, as they really need to earn a road series win over the Rebels to get strongly back into the NCAA Regional hosting mix. The Hogs will send Brandon Moore to the bump in the series opener, with Moore sporting a 0.95 ERA in 38 innings. However, he's only made two starts this season in 13 total appearances. For the Rebels, this weekend is absolutely critical. They've stumbled the past couple of weekends, blowing one game against Georgia last weekend by allowing six runs in an eighth inning. The motto for the Rebels this weekend is seal the deal. I'd look for the Rebels to be extra motivated.
PG Pick:
Ole Miss

No. 24 East Carolina at No. 14 Rice -- The Pirates have quietly put together a very solid campaign this season. Problem is, their schedule isn't loaded with a lot of high RPI teams, so their success haven't been noticed as much. With that said, ECU has done a terrific job on the mound this season with a 3.15 ERA. Veteran pitcher Kevin Brandt is 5-2 with a 1.92 ERA in 61 innings of work, while relievers Andy Smithmyer and Tanner Merritt have outstanding ERAs of 1.49 and 1.67, respectively. For the Owls, this team has a wealth of potential, if only they can consistently hit with runners in scoring position. The Owls have experienced a lot of success this season without doing so. Doing so could definitely equal a national title, seeing as the Owls have an outstanding pitching staff paced by right-handed starting pitcher Matt hew Reckling and stud closer J.T. Chargois, who was up to 96 against Texas A&M earlier this week.
PG Pick: Rice



Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game and can be reached at kendall@perfectgame.org



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