Jason Nowa

Utes Baseball Overmatched Midway Through Season
Story and Photos by Jason Nowa

The inaugural year in the Pacific-12 Conference (Voices of Utah) for the University of Utah athletics has been one of transition and struggle.

When the university switched athletic leagues last year, the big story was all about difficulty– how challenging the change would be, and how tough it would be for the Utes to switch to new surroundings, higher pressures and a notch up in the quality of competition.

Critics and fans alike suggested the sport to take the biggest hit would be baseball. The baseball program was thrown into one of the best conferences in the country.

Warm climate states, including California and Arizona, have six Pac-12 member teams, and that warm weather certainly helps, giving teams a chance to play year-round.

The Baseball America preseason Top 25 rankings had five Pac-12 teams ranked to being the year. All five of those preseason ranked teams are currently still ranked in the Top 25 midway through the season.

One new addition from the Pac-12 to those rankings is the University of Oregon, currently ranked at 22 in the nation.

The others are University of Arizona at number four, UCLA number five, Stanford number six, Oregon State number 20, and Arizona State number 24.

A historic win for the Utes came when they swept a doubleheader on March 16 against USC for its first Pac-12 victories.

Their worst loss of the season so far came on March 30 at home against UCLA 16-0. The Utes have had two separate six-game losing streaks through the season and have won more than one game only once.

“This first half of our season hasn’t gone as we wanted, but we can only move forward and plan for the next game. The past is the past,” junior catcher Parker Morin said.

The team had only one home game through the first 22 games to start the season. They went 1-8 through their last home stand.

The team heads back on the road playing at California-Berkley before returning to Salt Lake City for a quick home stand starting on April 24.

The Utes are currently the only Pac-12 team with an overall losing record halfway through the season.

Pitching has been a problem this year. The team has only two starting pitchers who have thrown over 17 innings. Juniors Joe Pond and Brock Duke are the most consistent starters.

Pond is 2-5 in eight starts with an ERA of 5.62 in 40 innings. Duke is 2-1 in six starts while posting a 3.35 era in 40.1 innings. Duke has 25 strikeouts to 14 walks while Pond leads the team with 32 strikeouts and has 20 walks.

The team’s most reliable relief pitcher has been Mitch Watrous, who has pitched 24 innings posting a 2.25 ERA, lowest on the team with the most appearances.

Closer Tyler Wagner has been very shaky through the first half of the year. He has pitched 20 innings with a 4.87 ERA. Wagner on April 3 gave up five earned runs in the 9th inning of a devastating 9-6 loss to rival BYU.

“Our team needs better quality starts from myself along with our other pitchers so that our offense doesn’t have such big deficits to try and overcome,” said Junior starting pitcher Joe Pond.

The most valuable player through the first half of the season has been catcher Morin. Morin leads the team with a .347 batting average, 41 hits, and 22 RBIs. Morin as a catcher also has the duty of controlling the pitchers and knowing their strengths.

Short stop James Brooks, who is a returning starting senior from Melbourne, Australia, has been equally as consistent as Morin to help lead the offense. Brooks is batting .301 with six home runs and 18 RBIs in 37 hits. These two have held the team afloat offensively.

The two biggest disappointments offensively have been sophomore third baseman Trey Nielsen, and senior outfielder Shaun Cooper. Nielsen dominated Mountain West Conference pitching last year as he was honored as a Louisville Freshman All-American. Nielsen was one of the big threats in the lineup as he had nine home runs with 41 RBIs on the year. Nielsen’s production has tailed off considerably this year with a .233 batting average, no home runs, and only eight RBIs through 30 games that he has started.

When asked how the transition has been for the team to the Pac-12 conference Nielsen said, “It’s been a struggle. We are facing multiple future major league players on each team now as opposed to maybe one or none from any team we faced in the Mountain West last year. This Pac-12 league is the best in America.”

Cooper was picked as a preseason Louisville All-American slugger after the fabulous season he had last year with a .332 batting average, eight home runs, 43 RBIs in 67 hits. This year Cooper is only batting .205 with four home runs and 15 RBIs in 24 hits.

All the lost production from a potent offense a year ago could stem from the loss of two-time All-American first baseman C.J. Cron (Voices of Utah) to the major leagues. Cron became Utah’s first-ever, first-round draftee when he was selected 17th overall in the 2011 MLB Draft by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Opposing pitchers feared Cron, and often walked him.

The Utes finished in second place in the Mountain West conference last year with an overall record of 28-19.

The competition from switching leagues is a dramatic increase but it makes a team much different after losing two players to the major leagues in the same year.

Pitcher Rick Anton also was drafted a year ago. Anton was selected in the eighth round of the 2011 MLB Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Being on the team last year was awesome; we were so good with C.J. and Rick. And they made everyone else better on the team. It’s tough without them. We’ve had to find new leaders to look to and find that one guy to rally around,” said shortstop Brooks.

The Ute baseball (Voices of Utah) team is currently sitting in 10th place out of 11 participating schools, with only University of Colorado not having a baseball team.

Overall the Utes are 10-25, while 4-8 in conference play as of April 10. They are 1-9 at home, 7-13 on the road, and 2-3 at neural field sites. There are 21 games left in the season to try and improve their record.