Photo by Carson Field (@CarsonDField)
Last season, a midseason offensive explosion against a very good Texas team gave the Falcons the confidence boost they needed to propel them to a 10-5 record over the second half of the conference season and a fourth seed in the conference playoff.
This year, with the first complete team effort and all phases of the game contributing, the Easter weekend sweep of the Fresno State Bulldogs should put the Falcons in a good position to return to the conference tournament and make a run at a second consecutive appearance at the NCAA Regional playoff.
The spark for the sweep was provided by senior pitcher Jake Sansing making the first appearance as a weekend starter in his Falcon career. Sansing had twice provided very effective mid week starts against Power 5 teams Michigan State and Kansas State. Coach Kazlausky boldly labelled him the Falcon strike thrower and gave him the surprise start to open the series against the Bulldogs. Sansing proceeded to prove Kaz right. allowing only 2 runs, 5 base hits and no walks in eight strong innings of a 10-5 victory over Bulldog ace Ixan Henderson.
Doyle Gehring got the start for the second game, and took the cue from Sansing and started throwing strikes. Coming into the game, Gehring has been the staff’s hardest pitcher to hit, limiting opponents to a .245 batting average, but has struggled with control. Coming into the game he had allowed 19 walks and 8 hit batters in 36 innings. Gehring restricted the Bulldogs to just 2 runs, 6 hits and 1 walk in 7 innings for a 13-4 win.
With two wins in the pocket, why use any other strategy? Dylan Rogers intelligently replicated the strategy in the third game, pitching 7 innings, allowing 6 hits, 2 runs, 1 walk and 1 hit batter. With the Falcon bats more subdued in the game, Rogers had to be more careful and needed reliever Sawyer Hawks to pitch a shutdown two innings of work to protect a 4-3 win. Reaching up to 95 MPH on the speed gun, Hawks has solidified his role as closer.
A big benefit of throwing strikes was the ability to keep the pitch count down and squeeze more innings out of the starters. Thus far, when the Falcons have had to dig deep into the bullpen for innings, the effectiveness has fallen off sharply.
With 27 runs and 39 hits in the series, the Falcons have again found their mojo at the plate once returning to Falcon stadium after playing much of the early season on the road and struggling with the bats.
Currently, I would break the conference into three tiers.
In the top tier are San Diego State and San Jose State. Both of these teams have top tier pitching staffs with notable depth in the bullpen. Both these teams are only average offensively, but the pitching staffs have been able to compensate for any offensive deficiency. Aztec pitcher/outfielder TJ Fondtain is this year’s version of Paul Skenes. He has 3 wins and an ERA of 3.40 as the #1 starter and leads the Aztecs with 6 homers and has a batting average of .307.
In the second tier are the Falcons, UNLV, Fresno State, and New Mexico. When the Falcons played New Mexico earlier this year, I was impressed by the offensive prowess and strong starting pitching. They have a strong closer in Brian McBroom, but after that the pitching depth is thin. Fresno State has good starting pitching and some effective relievers, but are definitely not strong offensively as the Falcons’ starters had some of their best performances of the year against the Bulldogs. UNLV has fallen off offensively this year and have not improved their pitching staff.
Nevada is alone in the bottom tier. The Wolf Pack lost a lot of experience this year and are in a rebuilding year. The starting pitching is effective and could provide some upside to the future performance.
Overall, the Falcon’s are in a better position this year to qualify for the conference championship tournament, but are not yet in as good a position to win that tournament. I feel good about the starting pitching, but we need better bullpen performance and better hitting with runners in scoring position.
Nevada up next
The Falcons travel to Reno this weekend for the first and only series between the teams this year. The starting rotation for the Wolf Pack will likely be Kade Morris (3-3, 5.16 ERA), Jason Doktorczyk (2-2, 4.57 ERA), and Peyton Stumbo (2-3, 4.36 ERA).
The Wolf Pack are 13-18 overall and 4-10 in conference.