Battle of the Brazos begins tonight

The baseball Battle of the Brazos kicks off tonight as Texas A&M and Baylor hook up for their split series. Friday night's contest starts at 6:30 in College Station , and then the series shifts to Waco for Saturday and Sunday (6:00 PM and 2:00 PM, respectively).

The series marks the first time that the two clubs have hooked up since meeting in the 2007 Big 12 tournament championship game. A&M took that contest, plus two of three during that season. Despite last year's success, though, the Aggies have struggled with the Bears. A&M won the series in 2003 and 2007, but have failed to take any other series this decade.

Every series is huge when you lead the conference standings, but the importance of this one takes on additional meaning for the Aggies. The Bears, tied for fourth in the league (with OSU and Texas ) at 8-7, equal the highest standing Big 12 team that the Aggies have played thus far. The knocker, from outsiders, on A&M's conference leading mark is that they've been successful only against the bottom of the league. Though this fact is somewhat generated since A&M and second place Nebraska have dominated those teams ( Nebraska 's 11-3-1 record has fed on many of the same opponents), taking a series against the Bears can have a positive psychological impact both inside and outside of the program.

A glance at Baylor's stats and results for this season indicate that this is a series that A&M should take and, given the nature of the conference, must take to stay in contention. The Bears started the season 11-1 before dropping 10 of their next 15 contests. The Bears have returned to a better pace, though, winning seven of their last ten. The distributive property rarely works in sports comparisons, but both teams have faced Oklahoma, Kansas, Kansas State, and Oklahoma State thus far in league play; A&M went 10-2 in those contests while Baylor earned an 8-4 mark.

Baylor enters the game batting just .277 on the year, and the offensive disparity in their wins and losses is staggering. The Bears are batting .316 in the games they win, but plummet all the way to .209 in their losses. Their batting average in Big 12 play is .249, as well as a .233 mark away from Baylor Ballpark.

A&M fans are familiar with the early season struggles of All-American Blake Stouffer, and the Bears have seen their own slugger, Beamer Weems (.244-5-17, .208-3-6) undergo similar struggles. Three Baylor hitters enter the weekend with averages above .300, but much like the Aggies the offensive production is spread out through the top six hitters in their line-up.

The Bears don't move as often as the Aggies on the basepaths, but are quite successful when they do (37 steals in 52 attempts). That running signifies the most systemic run manufacturing, as they've laid down just 27 sacrifice bunts in 37 contests. Stats also show the Bears to be a free-swinging lot, having fired out 35 homers and striking out 287 times while walking just 178 (1.61:1 K-to-BB ratio). This weakness must be exploited for A&M to earn the much needed series win.

Baylor's team ERA of 4.77 is somewhat deceiving, as they're perceived to have one of the deeper pitching staffs in the league. Friday starter Kendal Volz is having a season quite comparable to A&M's Barret Loux, where the ERA number isn't exciting (4.78) but he continues to pitch effectively and give his team a chance to win each time he's on the hill. The three starters that Steve Smith sends to the hill combine for a 3.97 ERA. Their bullpen has been a mixed bag this year, with six hurlers having thrown significant innings. Three of those have ERAs of 3.33 or better, while the other three are above 6.20. Of those six, Wade Mackey and Tim Matthews threw at least six innings in mid-week contests with Dallas Baptist and may not be available for the early series games.

The Aggies will need to use their league-leading .326 conference average (.323 overall) to take advantage of that Bear pitching. A&M is averaging 7.91 runs per contest, while holding opponents to just 4.32 (3.60 ERA). Six of the top seven in the A&M batting order are now above .325 for the season, with the lone exception being Stouffer (.262) who has hit .360 during his current 13 game hitting streak. Dane Carter (.432-5-43, .383-2-20) leads the team in average and the nation in triples with eight, while Jose Duran (.382-2-37, .441-0-16) and Darby Brown (.333-8-43, .435-4-28) pace the team in league play.

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