Most winning baseball teams, at all levels, have a steady if not imposing presence behind the plate. Drake Baldwin fits that profile for Missouri State.
The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Baldwin started his 37th game of the season at catcher on Friday as the Bears opened a key Missouri Valley Conference series against Southern Illinois.
Baldwin has a .333 batting average, nine home runs, 40 RBIs and a team-leading .453 on-base percentage. Defensively, he’s been durable and rock solid with only two errors.
The Bears dropped the series opener 8-2 and Baldwin had a rough day at the plate, going 1-for-5. He did extend his streak of reaching base to 30 games with a ninth-inning single.
There surely will be better days ahead for Baldwin and the Bears.
“In baseball you have those tough days, but being a good team you have to be able to flush it and move on and start tomorrow fresh,” Baldwin said in looking ahead to Saturday’s 11 a.m. game at Hammons Field.
A former high school hockey standout in Madison, Wisconsin, Baldwin is forging a path, wearing a different kind of padding and mask. With his size and ability, the junior is draft-eligible and figures to be an attractive target in the pro draft this summer.
But Baldwin’s immediate focus is helping the Bears continue their recovery from an eight-game April losing streak that included an 0-6 start to league play. The Bears have won eight of 10 since the skid as they attempt to claw back into the top half of the league standings as the league tourney approaches, May 24-28 at Hammons Field.
“Right now all I can think about is trying to win the next game and stay in the present,” Baldwin said. “It’s just about being with this great group of guys and coming into the clubhouse every day, wanting to get better and win more baseball games for Missouri State.”
Missouri State’s veteran head coach Keith Guttin said Baldwin’s durability and toughness have been keys to the team’s turnaround and will be important if Missouri State is to make a stretch run.
“He’s been outstanding,” Guttin said of Baldwin. “If you put every phase of the game together, he’s excelled in them. He’s hit for power, he’s hit for average, he’s received well, he’s thrown well and he’s been a leader. He’s a do-everything guy.”
Playing the most-demanding position on the field takes a physical over the course of a season. Getting Baldwin to take time off from catching is not easy as he’s determined to be back there — though Baldwin has been designated hitter five times this season.
“He’s gonna be back there and is never going to ask out. We’re at the point of the season where there aren’t going to be many off days for Drake,” Guttin said.
Baldwin smiled when asked about the grind of catching. He knows his teammates count on him to be there.
“Being a catcher is a hard position,” Baldwin said. “One thing we talk about is I have to be a backbone for the pitchers. The pitcher doesn’t want me to be tired. Even if I am tired, I can’t show it because that shows weakness.
“I do take pride in being able to catch every day. I’ve loved catching ever since I was young. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I want to do for a lot longer.”
Some of that toughness relates to Baldwin’s background as a hockey standout. He led Wisconsin in goals as a junior at Madison West High with 43 and was named a first-team all-state forward and finalist for the Wisconsin Hockey Coaches Association Player of the Year honors as a senior.
“There probably are some similarities,” he said of the two sports. “In hockey, you don’t ever show it when you’re hurt, I guess, and you keep on playing. Being a catcher you have to move on to the next pitch, even if you take a ball off the hand or something like that.
“You move on and fight through the pain and hockey is something that helped me learn how to do that.”
Getting past the mental pain of a clunker of a game like Friday’s is something that Baldwin and the Bears must do, Saturday and several more times over the next couple of weeks as they seek momentum for the league tourney on their home field.
The Bears have proven they can beat the best, like earlier this week when they took down No. 4-ranked Arkansas 6-4 in Fayetteville. But the opener of the weekend series against Southern Illinois was anything but a top performance.
“We just have to trust the process and get back to what we’ve been doing well, which is having high intent when we swing, throwing strikes, executing pitches with two strikes,” Baldwin said. “That’s the reason we were playing really good ball. We had energy and were executing.”
Down the stretch with the MSU Bears
What’s at stake: Missouri State plays host to the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, May 24-28 at Hammons Field. The top four teams in the regular-season standings secure positions in the six-team, double-elimination bracket. The bottom four play on May 24 in single-elimination games to get into the bracket. Missouri State (22-19 overall, 5-7 MVC) began play this weekend one game behind fourth-place Dallas Baptist.
Bears’ remaining conference games:
Saturday — 11 a.m. vs. Southern Illinois at Hammons Field
Sunday — 11 a.m. vs. Southern Illinois at Hammons Field
May 14-16 — 11 a.m. games vs. Illinois State at Hammons Field
May 19-21 — at Bradley