Air Force coach Mike Kazlausky must have had this game planned out at the beginning of the season:
- Get to the final game of the season tied for the final conference tournament spot
- Spend most of the season searching for the third spot in the starting rotation
- Pick a freshman with no wins entering the final game for the start
- Tell him to throw 8 shutout innings
Joking aside, Rogers has been flashing this potential regularly over the last half of his freshman season. Kazlausky first turned to him as a starter in a mid-week game against #10 Texas, and Rogers delivered giving up only one run in three innings of work as the Falcons won 14-2. He pitched in relief a couple times after that and looked strong enough that Kazlausky made him the third starter permanently beginning with the UNLV series. He pitched well enough in that series and in the next series against SDSU to get a win, but came up empty both times.
Rogers had his worst outing of the year last week against SJSU, giving up 6 earned runs and 7 hits in 3 innings, but Kaz had seen enough to stick with him in the final crucial game.
Rogers had good help from his defense. Gabe Garcia and Blake Covin made nice grabs of line drives to left and center field, and Jay Thomason snagged a hard hit grounder to start a double play in the second inning. Also noteworthy was a trip to the mound by his catcher, Paul Skenes, in the bottom of the sixth inning with runners on first and second with one out. Rogers had just given up his first and only walk of the day, but whatever perspective he got from the staff ace settled him down and he retired the next two batters, giving up only one single the rest of the game.
Certainly, the defense has been a strong point throughout the season. The Falcons led the Mountain West in fielding percentage at .973. The infield is particularly strong with Jay Thomason, Aerick Joe, Trayden Tamiya, and Sam Kulasingam all returning next year.
The Falcons will face first seed UNLV in the first game of the tournament. The two teams split 6 games during the regular season, each taking all three games at their home field. All tournament games will take place at Tony Gwynn Stadium in San Diego. The Falcons will likely start Paul Skenes. At this time, it’s unsure who the Rebels will start. They have 4 or 5 pitchers that have roughly similar stats, none of whom approaches what Skenes can consistently do on the mound.
What UNLV does have is hitters galore. Seven regular starters have averages above .320, and the team average is .331, which is .013 above any other team in D1 baseball. The team on base percentage is .420.
However, the Falcons sport a batting average of .312 and a similar slugging average with more home runs. With Skenes pitching, the Falcons should have the edge in this game.
The tournament is double elimination, so it is possible for the winning team to have to play four games in four days. This will make pitching depth crucial for a chance to win it all. If Rogers can produce another performance like Saturday’s, it would give the Falcons a real chance to advance to the Field of 64.
Doyle Gehring has filled the other starting position in the rotation recently, and will probably fill that role in the tournament. However it’s possible the Falcons could use Rob Martin in the role. He was in the starting rotation early in the year, and started out strong before falling off and moving to the bullpen. Both Gehring and Martin have been stronger coming out of the bullpen as a long reliever, and whoever doesn’t get the start would be the first option to come into the game if a starting pitcher struggles early.
If the Falcons reach a final fourth game, it’s possible that Kazlausky would use Skenes on three days rest if he doesn’t have to make too many pitches in the first game. In the New Mexico series, Kaz removed Skenes from the opening game after just 5 innings and 73 pitches with the Falcons leading 14-1, probably thinking he could use him to close out the final game if he had to.
The Falcon’s opening game will be on Thursday, May 26 at 6 PM Pacific time.