A new era of Nevada Wolf Pack baseball is about to hit the ground running.
“There is a good enthusiasm around here,” Wolf Pack pitcher Adam Whitt said. “There’s a lot more energy.”
“Everyone is definitely excited,” pitcher Colby Blueberg said. “The coaches and the players have really bonded well. We’re really getting our team chemistry going.”
A new coaching staff and 13 new players will usher in a new season when the Wolf Pack takes on Boston College and Santa Clara in a doubleheader on Friday at Santa Clara.
“I don’t want to sound cliché,” first-year Pack baseball coach Jay Johnson said this week, “but we really only talk about the day immediately ahead of us. You can talk about winning championships and going to the regionals all you want but that doesn’t make you a better team. All we worry about is being confident and prepared for the challenges that day.”
Johnson, who spent the past eight seasons as an assistant coach at San Diego, takes over a team that finished just 25-32 last year overall and 11-20 in its first season in the Mountain West in 2013. The 36-year-old Johnson, who has one year of head coaching experience in 2005 at NAIA school Point Loma Nazarene, replaces Gary Powers.
Powers was 937-762 in 31 seasons at Nevada with four NCAA regionals appearances, none since 2000. San Diego went to six regionals and won four West Coast Conference titles under head coach Rich Hill with Johnson was an assistant since 2006.
“I think our players are in a good place right now,” Johnson said. “But now we need to go play some games.”
Johnson and the new-look Pack won’t be able to ease into the season. The Pack will have to play nine important Mountain West games over its first 15 games in the first month of the season.
“We need to see how we respond to challenges,” Johnson said. “Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that we get to play Mountain West games right away.”
The Wolf Pack’s 30-man roster consists of nine freshman, three sophomores, 11 juniors and seven seniors. Among the players gone from last year’s team are pitcher Braden Shipley, who went 7-3 with a 2.77 earned run average and 102 strikeouts in 107 innings as well as right fielder (and former Western Nevada player) Brooks Klein, who hit .346 with seven home runs and 42 RBI. Shipley was drafted with the No. 15 overall pick in last June’s amateur draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
There are, however, plenty of familiar faces returning from Powers’ last team at Nevada. Austin Byler (.346, eight homers, 40 RBI) will move from third base to first base. Kewby Meyer (.302) will move from first base to left field and Brad Gerig (.283) will replace Klein in right field. Also among the returners are catcher Ryan Teel (.231), infielders Kyle Hunt (.216) and Scott Kaplan (.213), outfielder Jay Anderson (.103) and pitchers Tyler Wells (4-6, 4.39), Barry Timko (1-3, 5.11) and Carson High graduates Blueberg (1-0, 5.60) and Whitt (1-4, 3.76).
“Everybody got a fresh start this year,” Whitt said. “It was kind of like a big tryout for everyone.”
“We’ve all come together real well,” Blueberg said. “The older guys have taken the new guys under their wing.”
Whitt and Blueberg will definitely give the Wolf Pack bullpen a Carson High flavor once again this year. The two right-handers were instrumental in stabilizing the bullpen last year and could have an even more important role this year with the closer role up for grabs. Last year’s closer, Michael Fain (nine saves), has moved to the starting rotation.
Blueberg, a junior this year, appeared in 22 games and struck out 24 in 27.1 innings last year. Whitt, a sophomore, was arguably the second best Pack pitcher a year ago behind Shipley. He appeared in 24 games and fanned 21 in 26.1 innings while allowing just three extra-base hits all season long. Opponents also hit just .240 off him.
“At the beginning of the year I was real young and I made some rookie mistakes,” said Whitt, who allowed two earned runs and a hit without recording an out in his first game against Kansas. “But toward the end of the year I matured. It really gave me confidence going into this year.”
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Whitt seems to be overflowing with confidence.
“My goal is to pitch in every game this season,” he said.
He is serious.
“I love the competitiveness he shows with that statement,” Johnson said. “That’s the type of mindset I want. He throws in the high 80s and he can get both lefthanders and righthanders out. He has the ability to pitch a lot. And sidearm guys like Adam bounce back quicker.”
Whitt isn’t being selfish when he says he wants to pitch in every game this year.
“I just want my coaches and my teammates to know that I will be ready to contribute and help this team every single day,” Whitt said.
Whitt pitched in as many as four consecutive games once last year between April 28 and May 4. He allowed just one run and struck out six in 5.1 innings during that stretch. He also appeared in 11 of 17 games from April 16 through May 16 when he allowed five earned runs in 13.2 innings with 13 strikeouts. After April 16 he never went more than two games in a row without stepping on the mound.
“My goal is to set some records this year,” Whitt said. “Whether its saves or appearances or earned run average or whatever. You have to have high goals in this game. I just want to help this team as much as I can.”
While Whitt has the ability to be a workhorse, Blueberg and his bulldog mentality would seem to be a prime candidate to close.
“Whatever the coaches need me to do, I’m ready to do it,” said Blueberg, who has worked his 44 career appearances behind closers Matt Gardner and Fain the last two years. “But whether it’s the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth inning, it doesn’t matter. There’s no situation I haven’t already faced in this game.”
Blueberg was one of the Pack’s top pitchers over the final few weeks of last season, allowing just one earned run and two hits in 6.1 innings over his last seven appearances.
“I had a great year,” Blueberg said. “But last year is in the past. All that matters is this year. I know I have the ability to do whatever is needed. If they need me to close, I’m ready. Closing games is a mentality. Some people can do it and some people can’t. I know I can handle it.”
Johnson said Timko and Fain will start the Pack’s two games against Boston College and Santa Clara on Friday.
“After that, we’ll see,” said Johnson, who has been a hitting coach throughout his career. “I’d love to settle on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday rotation. But in San Diego we would use five different guys based on matchups and that worked real well, too. When you use a lot of guys, it gives you a good sense of team.”
The pitching staff and all its roles, Johnson said, will be fluid.
“We will evolve as we go,” Johnson said.
Heading into the season it appears that the offense will revolve around Meyer and Byler. Johnson is moving Meyer to the leadoff spot this year and Byler will be the run producer in the middle of the lineup.
Meyer has hit .313 in his two-year Pack career with three homers in 364 at-bats. Meyer hit leadoff just twice last year but the role might be better suited for his talents. His RBI total dropped from 34 his freshman year to just 18 last year in the same number of at-bats (182).
“I want to get him to the plate as much as possible,” Johnson said. “He is a very talented hitter.”
Byler, who has hit 12 home runs in 345 career at-bats, will likely hit third or fourth. Last year he started 45 games combined as either the No. 3 or 4 hitter. The slugger, though, will look for more consistency this year. A year ago, for example, six of his eight home runs and 20 of his 40 RBI came in just four games against Holy Cross, UC Davis and Utah Valley.
“He’s a very talented guy,” Johnson said. “You know, it goes a long way when one of your better players is also one of your better workers. Austin is a very good leader, a good clubhouse guy.”
Johnson is also excited about Gerig’s potential to be a run producer behind Byler. The senior hit two homers and drove in 18 runs on a .283 average last year in just 113 at-bats. His year was a rollercoaster ride. He went 9-for-25 (.360) in the Pack’s first seven games but then went just 6-for-45 (.133) over the next two months. Gerig, though, did finish as one of the Pack’s strongest hitters, going 17-for-43 (.395) over his last 14 games.
“He has a lot of tools,” Johnson said. “And he’s just starting to come into his own.”
The Wolf Pack was picked to finish fifth in the Mountain West by the league’s seven head coaches behind (in order) New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV and Fresno State and ahead of Air Force and San Jose State. Byler was the only Pack player named to the 11-member Mountain West Pre-season All Conference team.
“I expect this team to be much better at the end of the season than it is right now and I expect to be a better head coach,” Johnson said. “My only concern each day is to get the most out of what we have on every given day. If you do that, this game will reward you.”