The Mountain West Conference baseball tournament is upon us, so we reached out to people familiar with each of the seven teams in order to gain some insight about them.
It's never easy competing at the highest level, in just about any sport, for any of our service academies, so it may surprise you that the Air Force Falcons have very quietly built a successful on-field product in the last several years. By possessing one of the nation's best offenses -- ninth in batting average, third in doubles, 17th in slugging percentage -- and a true ace on the mound, the Academy has built itself into a tough out for this year's tournament, something that assistant media relations director Nick Arseniak knows very well.
Mountain West Connection: Has there been a bigger surprise in the Mountain West than Griffin Jax's progression as staff ace? Has he made changes, or did the numbers (9-2, 1.74 ERA, 85 strikeouts in 98.1 innings) just catch up with his stuff?
Nick Arseniak: A combination of maturity and slightly altering his offseason workout program (actually doing less lifting). Strategically, he's done a better job of staying low in the zone. In addition to a slight up-tick in velocity, he's also developed his change up into a weapon and can go to it anywhere in the count.
MWC: How would you describe Adam Groesbeck's encore (.384/.461/.582) to his breakout 2015 campaign? What kind of an offensive weapon is he compared to other star hitters in the conference?
NA: As one of the fastest players in the conference, his speed has always been a big asset. And despite his unassuming size, he generates a lot of torque with very quick wrists. As with Jax, being an upperclassman has continued to increase his knowledge and comfort at the Div. I level. Increased confidence each year has allowed his abilities to truly shine so far this season.
MWC: The program has trended upwards in Mike Kazlausky's four years as manager, earning its first winning season since 1995 this spring. How would you describe his leadership style, and what kind of strategies does he employ that have led to the Academy's new successes?
NA: His leadership style is partly attributed to his time as a player under then-Air Force head coach Paul Mainieri, now the head coach at LSU. As a former pilot in the Air Force, he also has a no-nonsense what you see is what you get mentality. Aggressive, intense and ready to battle. He is a true testament to the warrior-ethos instilled in cadets at the Academy.
As the first Academy grad to coach the baseball program, he knows the ins and outs on what it takes to have a successful program. Its taken a few more years then they'd like, but the recruiting classes have produced better and better players the last 3-4 years. The junior class this year is probably one of the best all-time at the Academy. The ability to identify a quality baseball player that also has the grades to get into a service academy and has desire to serve at the service academy will always be a challenge, but coach Kaz is one of the most prepared to do so.
MWC: Air Force hasn't often made much noise in the conference tournament, but with the MWC's best-hitting offense and a bona-fide frontline starters, what kind of benchmark do the Falcons hope to clear in this tournament, with their best team in over 20 years?
NA: If we can get some pitching aside from Jax, the offense has been able to out-slug opponents in a lot of games. So there's no reason we can't surprise somebody early in the tournament. But the lack of pitching depth and inexperience in the bullpen (nine freshmen pitchers) will be factor if we get deep into the week.
LHP Jacob DeVries is battling a slight injury but rested the weekend to have him ready for the tournament. He will most likely start vs. UNLV and Jax will go Thursday due to heavy work load Saturday vs. UNM. If DeVries can find the strike zone (throws 91-94 with a deceptive motion), he can shut any offense down. But if he's walking guys left and right, well...