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The Battle for the Bubble: Baylor at Oklahoma State

The Big 12 is currently set to get six NCAA tournament bids according to College Baseball Nation’s Bubble Watch, with one of them needing a miracle to receive a bid. The last of those teams likely to receive at-large bids, Oklahoma State and Baylor, currently sit in the middle of the pack of the conference standings, with seemingly identical records heading into the second to last weekend of Big 12 play.

With their postseason hopes “on the bubble”, there is plenty at stake entering this series in Stillwater between the Cowboys and Bears, as the winner can all but seal up its spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Baylor takes its road trip north with a 29-14 record overall, leading Oklahoma State by a single game in the conference standings with a 9-9 Big 12 record.

The Cowboys, 19-7-1 at home this season, are 25-15-1, with a 10-11 conference mark.

In CBN’s CBR postseason rankings, Baylor sits at No. 27, while Oklahoma State is seven spots back at No. 34. Each has a solid tournament resume, having multiple marquee opponents in both non-conference and conference play.

The Cowboys took down Vanderbilt 10-6 in the series finale of its March 13-14 series against the Commodores and also has one victory over both Texas Tech and Texas. Josh Holiday’s squad is coming off a momentum boosting 7-3 midweek win over Oklahoma Tuesday. Though played against a Big 12 opponent, the Bedlam rivalry game counted as a non-conference duel, but had all the signs of a heated in-state, conference contest.

Baylor took down Auburn for its only win at the Round Rock Classic in late February and also tallied a win over Texas in the conference opening series. Two weeks ago, the Bears shocked many by defeating Texas Tech two games to one in Lubbock, a sign that Baylor is not easily rattled while on the road.

The secret to Baylor’s success seems to be found in its performance at the plate. Not only are the Bears the only team in the conference to enter the weekend batting above .300 (.311), but also boast two of the Big 12’s top hitters in outfielder Jared McKenzie and catcher Andy Thomas.

Interestingly, unlike other offensive stalwarts, i.e. conference foes Texas Tech and TCU, Baylor hardly hits for power. The Bears are seventh in the league in home runs (44), and are sixth in runs (319). Baylor, who flashed its offensive prowess last weekend against Kansas State’s subpar pitching, outscoring the Wildcats 43-15, is more than just a hitting team that thrives in high-scoring contests. Granted, the majority of their marquee wins are one-sided affairs that feature Baylor putting 10 or more runs on the board, but special attention needs to be paid to the pitching staff as well. Baylor may not have the flashiest guys on the mound, but they get the job done just the same, if not better. The Bears pitching staff ranks just behind Texas in ERA at 3.58 and have demonstrated remarkable accuracy, with the second-fewest hits (327) and walks (162) in the league.

That consistency on the hill will collide this weekend with an equally superb offensive opponent in Oklahoma State. Christian Encarnacion-Strand, who is hitting .374 with 15 homers and 58 RBI headlines the Cowboys’ lineup, which features an ample supply of strong hitters. But perhaps most notable is the fact that Oklahoma State’s batters rarely make contact in one and two pitch counts. That is because the Cowboys work the count especially well, fouling off as many pitches as necessary to either generate a walk, or get a more favorable pitch in the zone. In turn, this tires opposing pitchers quickly, as we saw in Tuesday’s win over Oklahoma. Sooner starter Dalton Fowler made it through just 0.1 innings of work, facing four batters and walking three of them, the first of which would score the Cowboys’ first run. Cade Cabbiness tallied the RBI guessed it, a walk against reliever Ben Abram. Cabbiness displayed the Cowboys’ plate approach especially well, hitting with two outs, yet fighting in a nine-pitch at-bat. By the time the Sooners headed to the dugout, 37 pitches had been thrown in the first inning alone. Oklahoma threw 200 pitches in the nine-inning contest, an average of 22.22 per inning.

On the mound, Oklahoma State’s pitching staff has an ERA of 4.31, but has allowed the third-fewest hits (341). Perhaps that is offset by the fact that the Cowboys lead the Big 12 in walks surrendered (210). If too many walks are allowed this weekend, there is only so much the Cowboy bats can do. Baylor’s game plan offensively centers around “small ball”, though the Bears do not steal many bases, with just 33 attempts on the season.

There may be reason for Baylor to test its speed however, as Oklahoma State has proven inept at fielding bunts, particularly as of late. When Oklahoma’s Brandon Zaragoza dropped a bunt to the third base side on Tuesday, the Cowboys surrounded the ball, and with hesitation, Encarnacion-Strand picked it up, firing it to first base, but well off target. Seeing that may cause Baylor to test the waters, especially early in the series when it comes to bunting.

If there is one pitching matchup that sticks out in this series, it will be on Friday night. There will be a touch of uncertainty as Baylor’s Tyler Thomas battles Oklahoma State’s Mitchell Stone. Thomas, a southpaw who currently ranks second in the league in ERA at 2.05, will be back after an absence, having missed the K-State series due to Covid-19 protocols. Truth be told, Oklahoma State could throw either Stone or Bryce Osmond. We will see Osmond, the question is when. He has been used both in the Friday night role and as the Sunday starter during this season. Stone picked up his first victory of the season last Friday, throwing 7.1 innings with three earned runs and eight hits. It should be an intriguing matchup and one that could either become a rubber match or slugfest.

Prediction: I like Oklahoma State’s chances at home. But I also like what Baylor does offensively. However, I think Baylor lacks the depth on the mound, especially considering the Cowboys’ plate approach, and that will be a strike against the Bears in Stillwater. I see Baylor, powered by Thomas, winning game one handily, but Oklahoma State pulling out wins in both games two and three, likely sealing its at-large bid.


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