Baylor relying on pitcher's return

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Whitney Canion's return to Baylor from knee surgery could change the balance of power in the Big 12.

No. 10 Baylor

Last season's record: 34-22

Key returnees: Whitney Canion, P; Holly Holl, 1B; Clare Hosack, C; Kelsi Kettler, C/IF; Liz Paul, P; Courtney Repka, P; Kathy Shelton, OF; Jordan Strickland, IF; Kaitlyn Thumann, OF

Key losses: Megan Turk, Kayce Walker

Tournament finish: Lost in Lafayette (La.) regional (1-2)

1. An All-American addition

Danielle Lawrie returned to Washington in 2009 after a redshirt season spent with the Canadian Olympic team, and the Huskies won a national title. Cal's Valerie Arioto returned in 2012 after a season lost to injury; the Golden Bears entered the NCAA tournament as the nation's No. 1 team. Whitney Canion's return at Baylor similarly could tilt the balance of power. Canion missed most of last season after she tore the ACL in her left knee running the bases, but the fifth-year player is back (and already has been granted a sixth year of eligibility). She went 31-12 with a 1.28 ERA and 339 strikeouts for Baylor in 2011. You might remember that the Lady Bears finished that season in Oklahoma City.

"To say she's 100 percent, I think the game itself has to get her back to 100 percent," Baylor coach Glenn Moore said. "But that's the same way with all pitchers heading into a season. I think she's good, ready to go. She looks good in her bullpen, her speeds are there, and she's swinging the bat well."

2. Turning on the power

South Florida and LSU offered the most recent reminders that even in this day and age, teams can get to the World Series without abundant power if they have pitching. But even Baylor hit 45 home runs when it made it two years ago behind Canion's pitching. Last season's anemic power production (14 HR, .334 slugging) won't get it done. Canion's return helps; she hit six home runs and slugged .481 in 2011 and will hit again this season. But improvement also hinges on continued -- and in Moore's eyes, expected -- growth from potential power assets like Holly Holl (13 doubles last season), Clare Hosack (eight extra-base hits in 102 at-bats) and freshman third baseman Sarah Smith.

Getterman Stadium, one of the best places in softball to watch a game, is a pitcher's park. Coincidentally or not, Moore's teams traditionally excel in the short game, but he would like a little less short and a little more long.

"I think we've made a shift in the direction I wanted to go in, hit a few more home runs and still be able to run the bases," Moore said. "I think we'll steal 80 bases possibly this year, 60 to 80, but we won't be up above 100 bases. Hopefully we'll cover that with more doubles and we won't have to steal ourselves into scoring position. That's what I desire, and that's what I see out of this team."

3. Sending Kathy Shelton out on top

With that added emphasis on power, Baylor may start the season with just one true slapper in the lineup. But that player may also be the most important piece of the order. Senior Kathy Shelton hit .331 last season and stole 30 bases while getting thrown out just once. Her .414 on-base percentage led the team, she scored 15 more runs than anyone else and, for being a slapper, she also tied for second with seven doubles. When injuries left the infield depleted, she even moved from center field to second base to fill in defensively. She'll be back in the outfield this season as one of the nation's more underrated players.

"I almost get emotional when I talk about Kathy Shelton because I've never had a leader that had all the intangibles that Kathy has," Moore said. "A lot of people say we go as Whitney Canion goes, and there's a lot of truth to that, but Kathy Shelton took us a long way last year with her leadership. A lot of teams would have folded up and called it a season, and she wouldn't allow that to happen."

4. Western infusion

Dating to the program's first World Series appearance in 2007, Baylor's rosters featured just one four-year player from Arizona, former infielder KJ Freeland. There are three Western natives this season, all freshmen: Smith and Justine Young from California, and Robin Landrith from Arizona. It isn't a change in recruiting philosophy as much as success in an area of previous frustration. But given the Big 12's precarious place in the softball landscape after losing national contenders Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC and replacing them with two schools, West Virginia and TCU, that currently don't play softball, it's a particularly good time to expand the program's reach.

5. Quick start potential

The strength of the nonconference schedule, such as it is, is in the back end, with March featuring games against Arizona State, Cal, Hawaii and North Carolina, in addition to a three-game series against Purdue. February includes just two games against teams that finished last season in the RPI top 50 (Illinois State and Texas State). Expect to see quite a bit of Liz Paul and Courtney Repka in the circle in the early tournaments.

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