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.
At this time last year, it seemed like the Nevada Wolf Pack, who hosted the conference tournament and had secured the regular season title, would find a way to slug their way into an NCAA regional. It wasn't meant to be, though, and Nevada found itself stuck with an early exit instead.
These days, however, the disappointment doesn't appear to have lingered. Even after losing significant talent to the professional ranks and their head coach, the Wolf Pack were once again in the hunt for the title until the season's last days. Chris Murray of the Reno Gazette-Journal explains why Nevada could finish the job this time around.
Mountain West Connection: It seemed inevitable that the Wolf Pack would take a step back after losing significant pieces of their high-powered 2015 offense, but no team defied expectations in the Mountain West this year like Nevada. Did T.J. Bruce just have the best managerial debut in conference history this year?
Chris Murray: You could make that argument. After being picked to finish sixth out of seven Mountain West teams in the preseason coaches poll, finished tied for second would certainly qualify as overachieving. However, Nevada never should have been placed that low in the first place. The team did return the MW player of the year (Trenton Brooks), the MW pitcher of the year (Christian Stolo) and All-MW first-team pick Bryce Greager. Depth was an issue entering the season but there was talent on the roster and a culture of winning, which helped Nevada get through a rocky start. Bruce did an excellent job of developing some players who had received sparse playing time in the past and nearly led Nevada to back-to-back MW title despite that meager outside predictions.
MWC: How did Trenton Brooks (.272/.394/.436) look on the field this year, after earning conference Player of the Year honors in 2015? Did he really take the step back that his offensive numbers suggest?
CM: Brooks had a slow first two months at the plate but has been excellent over the last month, hitting around .400 as Nevada has won 16 of its last 18 games. Coach Bruce said the pressure associated with being a draft-eligible junior might have weighed on Brooks early on. He said he's seen that happen plenty of times before. Ex-Pack standout Austin Byler also got off to a slow start as a junior before turning it on late. Brooks has been a valuable piece despite his slow start. He's been Nevada's Sunday starter and his 14 starts are tied for the team lead. He posted a 5-5 record with 5.91 ERA, not a great number but he's soaked up a career high in innings. It's probably not a coincidence that Nevada has played its best baseball after Brooks got hot at the plate. He's a huge piece of the lineup.
MWC: What can you tell us about sophomore outfielder T.J. Friedl (.391/.483/.559)? Were there any indications he would be such a force at the plate?
CM: Coach Bruce said he hasn't been surprised by Friedl's breakout, but just about everybody else has. After playing sparsely as a freshman in 2014, he redshirted last year because he wasn't going to get a lot of playing time. That's a rare move to redshirt in the middle of a career but Friedl used it to add some strength. He had a strong fall and that's carried over to the spring.
He's been Nevada's most consistent player and has given the team strong defense in center field in addition to leading the Wolf Pack in nearly every offensive category. He's been the team's MVP this season and one of the best players in the MW and if you asked everybody on Nevada's roster prior to the opener who the team's MVP would be, I doubt anybody would have fingered Friedl.
MWC: We know the Wolf Pack will get at least two games in the tournament, so who is likely to take the mound? And if the team falters, how will a quick exit be perceived after such a surprising season?
CM: Nevada will stick with its regular rotation and start Christian Stolo, a lefty, in its first game and Trevor Charpie, a righty, in its second game. Stolo (3-7, 5.02 ERA) hasn't been as good this year as last season when he was voted the league's top pitcher and he had a rough start in his lone MW Tournament game last year, but Bruce said he doesn't want to change things up in the postseason.
Charpie (5-3, 3.67 ERA) began the season as the team's closer but wasn't being used enough early on, so they move him into the rotation a month into the year. He's been Nevada's best starter this season and you could argue the Wolf Pack should pitch him in game one, but that's not Bruce's plan. Charpie, who began his career at Tennessee, did miss two starts late in the year because of an injury before taking his turn in the rotation last weekend, so he should be fairly well rested.