All of college baseball should be fans of Dallas Baptist.
Life isn’t always easy for the Patriots, who are off to a terrific 19-3 start and rank No. 1 nationally in RPI. They’ve got a lot of competition in the region with TCU in nearby Fort Worth, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State not too far to their north, and other programs like Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, Houston and Rice to their south, and of course, Texas Tech to their west. But guess what? Head coach Dan Heefner and his coaching staff have had little trouble winning, and doing it big on the national stage again this season appears to be in the works.
The Patriots might not have Longhorns, Frogs or Aggies across their chest, but what they lack perhaps in name they very much make up for in their evaluation and scouting of high school and junior-college prospects, respectively.
Look no further than 5-foot-8, 155-pound shortstop Camden Duzenack, who hit well over .300 last season and is one of the team’s leading hitters this season with a .345 batting average, along with three homers and 22 RBIs. He didn’t have glamorous scholarship offers to choose from out of high school. Duzenack, who hails from nearby Melissa, Texas, population 4,900, played for a 2A high school. For those of you unfamiliar with how Texas breaks down high schools, that’s a very small school. But Duzenack, a dirtbag-style of player back in high school days attended a camp at Dallas Baptist, the Patriots liked him, and the rest is history.
He’s now one of the better hitters in the state and country, and he’s just one of several examples throughout the Heefner era at DBU. The Patriots do get their fair share of highly sought after recruits, but mostly this is a program built from the foundation up with a collective roster with one ultimate goal — to make DBU consistently relevant on the national stage.
The Patriots still have much work to do the rest of the season to reach their goals, but this club has the makings of being a special team with the ability to win well into June.
“Camden was a guy that really loved being in tight situations, and he’s a little guy with some pop in his bat, he’s a special player,” Heefner said. “He didn’t play for big travel organizations in high school, he went under the radar, but he’s really, really good, as you can see.
“Our goal is pretty simple. We want to develop these guys. We know we’re not going to win some recruiting battles against certain kids, so it’s imperative we develop,” he continued. “We’ve got a great stadium and situation, and we’re in a much better conference now. Our goal is to be able to compete at the national level, and big, and to be able to do that, we have to develop our guys to pass some programs. Our players very much buy into that attitude. The type of kids who want to come play here typically are baseball junkies who want to develop.”Developed, showed up at DBU with high accolades, it doesn’t really seem to matter with each brand of player that enters the program. As players get more time in Heefner and DBU’s system, more often than not they blossom. That’s again the case this season, as the Patriots are in cruise control with a terrific overall record and resume, and some good wins, including a road series win over San Diego earlier this season.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt, DBU is the best team we’ve played,” one coach for a prominent team said. “Those guys are really, really good at the plate, and they’ve got good arms. They’re extremely impressive, and that staff does an amazing job.”
The Patriots are scary for many reasons. For starters, they’re very balanced, hitting .304 as a team while also possessing some of the more talented arms in the country. Offensively, DBU’s rise has been a little surprising, and it’s a combination of a better and more mature approach that’s led to the advances. DBU finished last season with a .262 batting average, but has taken an obvious big leap this spring.
“I think for us, the offense has been more about guys stepping up. We still drove the ball a lot last year, but our average was down. I felt like last year was going to kind of be a rebuilding year for us,” Heefner said. “We had a lot of new guys, and some new junior-college guys playing, and you know how those guys can be sometimes, when they start at least. We knew they were really good players, but they needed to get their feet wet.”
The experience gained last year is paying dividends. DBU ranks near the top nationally in several categories. In addition to the good team average, the Patriots are ranked fifth in scoring and most impressive, fifth in on-base percentage. DBU has a balanced lineup, and even a guy like catcher Daniel Salters, who entered the season as the most heralded prospect, but is only hitting .169, is finding ways to get on base with an OBP approaching .400.
The rest of the offensive lineup is impressive. Second baseman Drew Turbin always seems to put a charge into the ball and is hitting .349 with a home run and 18 RBIs, while David Martinelli and Trooper Reynolds are each big-time power producers with five homers each. There’s also, of course, Duzenack, who’s hitting .345/.442/.517 with three homers and 22 RBIs, while outfielder Tagg Duce is the most improved player from last year. Duce finished last season with a .207 batting average in limited at-bats, while this year he’s hitting .347/.462/.486 with two homers and 17 RBIs.
“All of those guys, and others are doing a good job for us. They benefitted from that experience they got last season,” Heefner said. “If there’s been a surprise for us, it’s Tagg. He was a really good player out of junior-college and led the nation in doubles. He was really good in the fall and is just a really scrappy hitter. Turbin, I wouldn’t say it’s such a surprise because we knew he could do it, but he’s been really good and stepped up. One of our strengths as a lineup is balance, and his mentality atop the lineup is pretty contagious. He’s a really tough guy and loves to compete.
“If there’s someone you want to take on the persona of, it’s him [Drew Turbin],” he continued. “He really seems to make us go as an offense.”
As productive as Dallas Baptist’s offense is, the most heralded aspect of this team on the national stage is its impressive stable of arms. The Patriots possess two of the top arms in the region in starting pitcher and righthander Joseph Shaw, and big-time closer and righthander Brandon Koch.
Shaw is a former reliever for the Patriots, but was moved to the weekend rotation near the midway point of last season. Since then, all he’s done is tally a 2.13 ERA in eight starts and 42.2 innings of work. He possesses a big-time arm for the Patriots, sitting 90-92 with his fastball, and having the ability to get up to 93-94-95 with the pitch, too. He also has a good slider along with good mound presence and an attacking attitude.
Koch is the highest-rated prospect, and for good reason. UC Santa Barbara made waves a few weeks ago when it moved righthander Dillon Tate to the weekend rotation. Koch provides that same type of electricity in his arm, but don’t look for Heefner and the Patriots to move him to the rotation anytime soon. Heefner prefers to have that huge arm 25 times a year as opposed to just starting once a weekend, a decision that makes sense when you’re building a team to potentially reach the College World Series. The hard-nosed Koch has been exemplary so far this season, making eight appearances and tallying 24 strikeouts in 10.1 innings. The righthander has recorded 24 strikeouts in 31 outs recorded, while also sitting mid-90s and even touching 97 and 98 mph at times. Koch’s go-to pitch is his mid-80s slider, and Heefner says that pitch has almost been perfect.
“Joseph has really stepped in as a true Friday night guy and has really good stuff to go with good pitchability. He’s got mound presence and he’s going to make you feel pretty good as a coach,” he said. “He can definitely bump his fastball up there at 95 when he wants to. He was bumping 96 as a closer, but he wasn’t near as good then as he is now as a starter. His ball moves a bit better and his development has been neat to see.
“Brandon has been pretty unbelievable, really. He’s taken a jump from last year. Last year, his slider was really good, and this year it’s even better and he’s just living off that thing,” he continued. “The big difference this year is that he’s keeping his pitch count down and commanding his pitches better. He can throw that slider and he can elevate his fastball. The one interesting thing about Brandon is he can make that slider of his have more depth, or he can throw it more side-to-side. He can throw that pitch anywhere from 82-87 mph. For him, it hasn’t really mattered whether or not he’s hitting against righties or lefties, nobody is hitting him right now.”
The Patriots have other quality options in the weekend rotation and bullpen. In the rotation, righthander Trevor Conn (1.96, 23 IP) has taken the biggest step forward from a statistical standpoint and sits 88-91 with his fastball with good sink. He also flashes a quality changeup and his slider is a usable offering. Command is his key to success. Meanwhile, righty Cory Taylor (3.96, 25 IP) is one of the more talented arms in the program, but needs to be more consistent. Taylor has a good fastball that sits 90-94 and can touch 96, and Heefner said the pitch kind of reminds him of former big leaguer Kevin Brown. He also throws a slider that needs to have more depth and can show good feel for a curveball. Essentially, Taylor’s key moving forward to morphing into a more well-rounded pitcher, but the talent/strength is present.
Dallas Baptist is a very intriguing club to watch the rest of the season. The Patriots made their big statement on the national stage in 2011 by reaching the Santa Clara Super Regional, where they dropped a tough series to California.
But while Heefner and his staff are pleased with the progress they’ve made, they still have some unfinished business.
And a program built on all the above things is one you can root for.