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First Week of Mountain West baseball previewed

Baseball is here and we have you covered for the first weekend.

The MWC will be taking the field for the first time this weekend
Kenny Olinger

Preview of First Games of Season

Finally, the season is here and the games count and practice takes a back seat to the real thing. How's the pitching? How's Jones looking at third? All those questions will start to be answered. We should all have a larger question. How will MWC teams do against the better competition they may face? Well, I hope they do well. So, here we are at the weekend of the 17th of February. Let's look at the games. I know, I'll quit the artsy fartsy stuff.

Binghamton at New Mexico

Two champions start off the season playing each other in Albuquerque. The Bearcats were 30-25 last season and won their conference tournament to get the bid. They swept one of past year’s darlings in Stony Brook winning the season series 3-0 and beating them in the championship game of the AEC tournament. That made the Bearcats the clear and decisive winner of the their conference; regular season and tournament. I still don’t like the season ending tournaments.

Top hitter returning is Eddie Posavec (.319 and 0) but is joined by CJ Krowiak (.314 and 0), Brendan Skidmore (.307 and 9), and Paul Rufo (.306 and 2) so most of the hitting returns from a club that could hit (.292). Not a lot of pop but you see that Skidmore will have to be dealt with. Pitching was not that good (5.03) but one of the top starters (16 starts) returns in Jake Cryts (7-4 and 5.22). Some more experience returns in Jake Wioczewski (4-0 and 3.06 in 7 starts) and Nick Wegmann (2-0 and 3.22 in 6 starts). In other words a weekend rotation appears intact and two look fairly decent.

San Jose State at UCLA

The Bruins lived the dream in 2013 when they won the CWS. Last year wasn’t a nightmare but they certainly didn’t have much of a season at 25-31 and only one game out of the cellar in the Pac-12. Ouch! Who comes back off that club? I’ll just leave it that no .300 hitter returns. They only had one so some stepping up has to be done and I don’t know what recruits coming in will help.

Two of the three in the weekend rotation return in Kyle Molnar (5-5 and 3.32) and Griffin Canning (5-8 and 3.70). Closer Bryan Gadsby also returns (3-0 and 4.54 with 5 saves). Both Canning and Molnar can strike people out as they averaged a bit under one per IP. Both these guys look pretty good and will be a tough assignment for the Spartans.

Pacific at San Diego State

The Tigers have been below .500 for quite a few years and that’s in two different conferences. Last season they were 22-30 in the WCC. They didn’t hit rock bottom but they could see it from where they were. They had decent hitting at .281 but the pitching was patchy at 5.00. One of the top hitters returns in senior Danny Mayer (.314 and 15). That’s pretty good power and I’m a little surprised that he returned. Power is always the gold standard for MLB. Lucas Halstead (.313 and 5) and Nate Verlin (.301 and 1) are two other top hitters that return so that part of the game appears fairly healthy. Mayer is the kid to watch.

Get your hot dog AFTER he bats. Two of the three weekend arms also return as does the closer. Now, that’s pretty good and lets coach sleep a little better at night. Will Lydon (3-9 and 4.52) and Ricky Reynoso (3-4 and 4.76) had 27 starts between them in 2016 and Vince Arobio (2-1 and 3.12 and 6 saves) closed out some of the wins. They may improve this year. Two teams trying to decide what’s up.

Oregon at Fresno State

Coach Horton guided the Ducks to an average 29-26 year in 2016 and they’ve been better than that most years. Hitting was atrocious at .232 and they had but one .300 hitter and he returns. Jake Bennett hit .312 and 0 and the BA was 32 points better than the next guy. That says a lot. Pitching is what saved them from a dismal year. The team ERA was a respectable 3.74 but only one in the rotation returns in David Peterson (4-5 and 3.63).

The closer last year was Stephen Nogosek and he was one of the best in college baseball with 16 saves. He’s gone and will be hard to replace. So, hitting looks as if it should be better but pitching has some question marks. Two sophomores, Matt Mercer and Cole Stringer. Man, doesn’t that sound like a bad guy in an old cowboy movie? Hey, sheriff, Stringer’s back in town and he’s lookin' for you! Ha! Anyway, maybe those two will fill out the weekend. Oregon is always a good test but the Bulldogs should hold up just fine.

Nevada at Sam Houston State

The Bearkats were the 2016 champs of the Southland Conference by way of the tournament. Regular season wasn’t too bad either as they were 42-22 and made it to a regional where they went 1-2. There’s always at least one good team from the Southland. The team could hit (.291) and pitch (3.89) and that’s a recipe for success at any level. Not outstanding but good. Three of the top hitters return in Lance Miles (.308 and 1), Bryce Johnson (.345 and 2), and Clayton Harp (.341 and 0). I didn’t go too deeply on who returns but the top three do and that’s a good first step to more success. Pitching looks to be even better as two of three in the rotation return.

Riley Gossett (7-0 and 2.64) could be one of the best in that part of the country as he comes off a great freshman year. He’s one to watch. Heath Donica (10-4 and 3.42) led the staff in strike outs and IP so he’s a horse and another one the scouts will be watching. The only question is who will be the closer as a good one in Greg Belton moves on. The Bearkats could be even stronger in 2017. Nevada might be in for a tough time.

Air Force in Louisiana for various games (Army, LSU, and Tulane)

I hate writing up tournaments as I have to dig up dirt, uh, I mean info on far too many teams. Anyway, here goes.

I’ll start with Army and they are the toughest to analyze at this time of year. The roster has not been posted and that says it all. The service academies are always tough to cover. Different rules apply to them. The Black Knights had a poor year at 16-32 and you can guess why; couldn’t hit (.252) nor could they pitch (5.48). That’s a bad recipe (see Sam Houston State above).

The two top hitters return in Kris Lindner (.315 and 1) and Jon Rosoff (.314 and 0). That’s about it. Two juniors return to the rotation in Jeremy Mortensen (2-4 and 5.27) and Matt Ball (2-7 and 5.37). Those two should show some growth since last year and that’s promising. The top starter was a freshman (Daniel Burggraaf) and he was 3-2 and 3.21. The pitching, therefore, looks promising but they lack a closer. But the weekend looks good.

LSU is always good and always a fair bet to make it to the promised land. They were 45-21 last season. I have only one problem with LSU and the other SEC teams. Play some road games as part of your OOC schedule. So there. The Tigers could hit (.295) and pitch (3.97). Air Force will have troubles with the lineup as a lot of good hitters are always ready to plug the holes made by departing players.

Cole Freeman (.329 and 1), Antoine Duplantis (.327 and 2 and a great Louisiana name), and Kramer Robertson (.324 and 2) are three of the top four hitters and they return. No, they won’t be hurting. The top two starters in the rotation also return in Jared Poche’ (9-4 and 3.35) and Alex Lange (8-4 and 3.79). The Tigers have a lot waiting in the wings for the third weekend arm. Hunter Newman (1-1 and 2.13, 8 saves, and 40 strike outs in 38 IP) returns, too. Nineteen games to open the season and 17 were at home. Oops, did I say that? Yeah, I know, the snow belt teams need the spanking.

Tulane for one game. I’m not going deep with the Green Wave. NOLA is only a few miles from LSU and it’s a great place. Great food and environment. Go when you can. Tulane? Well, they were good last year at 41-21 and had great pitching with mediocre hitting. A good test for the fly boys. If they can come out of this mess at 2-2 we all should be happy for them. Don’t count on it.

Various teams at UNLV (Omaha, Saint Mary’s, UC Davis)

dOmaha, or University of Nebraska - Omaha, had about an average a year as you can get at 28-28. They hit decently at .292 but the pitching was suspect at 5.08. They have a first year coach in Evan Porter. He should have no trouble in transitioning. He played there, he was an assistant there, and now he’s top dog - there. What’s he got coming back for him? Of the top four hitters, two return in Ryan Cate (.317 and 5) and Adam Caniglia (.310 and 3).

That ain’t bad but they lose a substantive bat in Clayton Taylor who had 11 home runs. Two in the starting rotation return in Sam Murphy (4-6 and 3.86) and Corey Binger (8-3 and 4.06). Closer Ryan Cate returns with five saves but an over 5.00 ERA. That needs to improve.

I’ve talked about Saint Mary’s in the past. They are now finally good so I think they may come to this tournament with the idea to prove that their ascension was no fluke. They were 33-25 last season which was ok but not great. The WCC has their priorities well anchored, if you ask me, basketball and baseball; no football to drain the budget. So, you better be good in basketball if you want to make money and both Gonzaga and St. Mary’s do that in spades.

Gonzaga has been pretty good in baseball for quite a while but the Gaels only recently have gotten to a point where they are taken seriously, even in the bay area. They made it to a NCAA regional last year to make a point so this year will be to prove it. Hitting was not good at .269 but the pitching was strong at 3.58. Zach Kirtley (.323 and 7) and Joey Fiske (.310 and 0) were the top two hitters and they come back for more. They lose 23 home runs in three guys who have moved on and that might hurt as they had pop throughout the lineup which is not longer there. We’ll see.

Two of the top three starters in the rotation also return in Johnny York (7-5 and 3.25 and 102 IP) and Cameron Neff (6-3 and 3.81). Those appear to be two durable arms. Last year’s closer is gone so a bit of work is needed to fill a few holes but Friday and Saturday are in good shape.

UC Davis is a question that I’ve never been able to answer. This is one of the most popular schools in the west and they just can’t field a winning baseball team. 17-36 last season is only one year out of many. In the past ten years they’ve had only two winning seasons and they were followed and preceded by losing seasons. That doesn’t lend an air of confidence to the coming season. Let’s look at those coming back that might help change things. The one .300 that returns will be a senior if he returns in Mark Cardinalli.

The weekend starters return two in Robert Garcia (3-5 and 2.73) and Justin Mullins (2-4 and 4.79). The team’s ERA was a not-so-good 5.09 so to get back the rotation that should improve is huge. Closer? No one pitcher seemed to fill that role. This is really all up in the air as the current roster is not posted (as of 1/12). All in all, nothing to get really excited about other than they get a few players back from a poorly playing team from 2016.

So there you have it. The season's first weekend. Go see some games, if things are going on in your area. Still some snow in my area.