2013 Preview – Mountain West Conference

By Eric Sorenson. Posted on February 4th, 2013 in 2013 National Preview, Mountain West
 

2012 CONFERENCE ISR: 10

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HOW THEY’LL FINISH IN 2013:

1- New Mexico

2- Nevada

3- Fresno State

4- San Diego State

5- UNLV

6- Air Force

The very affable New Mexico Lobos head coach Ray Birmingham (second from right) has a potent offensive squad ready to attack the record book with seniors like Mitchell Garver (10) and Alex Allbritton (4) to lean on for 2013.

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THE LOWDOWN.

Talk about getting an extreme makeover. The Mountain West gets the full Ty Pennington treatment with an all-new lineup. TCU flies the coop and Fresno State and Nevada join the fray. Both of them also immediately step into favorites roles as they are both capable of winning the conference in their first season. But the catbird seat goes to New Mexico, who became one of the hottest teams in the country last May, especially in the MWC tournament I saw in Vegas. Enough pitching and a pair of All Americans should help the Lobos stay at the top of the standings. San Diego State and UNLV both have enough fire in their bellies and talent on the field to make a big move this season. The conference tournament moves from Vegas to Fresno, giving the Bulldogs an edge come the end of May.

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BREAKTHROUGH TEAM:

- Nevada.

Nearly the entire squad is back from what was a young team last season. The only problem seems to be a bullpen that needs another horse or two and the fact that UNR seems to underachieve at the wrong time through the years. Let’s hope some new surroundings breaks those old habits.

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TRENDING DOWN:

- Nobody.

Every team should be on an uptick this spring, which is what makes this Mountain West title chase potentially one of the best in the country.

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BIGGEST CLEATS TO FILL:

- Austin House, RHP, New Mexico

The Lobos staff ace had a knack for eating up innings for the bullpen, even having three complete games last season. But his reliability will be missed as both he and Gera Sanchez were the only starters to post sub-4.00 ERAs. And with the studs the offense has coming back, pitching is going to be the biggest key to UNM’s success, or lack thereof.

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BEST PLAYER:

- D.J. Peterson, 3B, New Mexico

Just barely edging out his partner in crime in Mitchell Garver, Peterson is a bona fide All American who can change a game with a single swing. His .419 average trails only LSU’s Raph Rhymes as the best returning numbers in the country. But he also adds the power facet of the game with his 17 home runs and .734 slugging percentage.

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BEST PITCHER:

- Bradey Shipley, RHP, Nevada

The Wolfpack hurler held opposing batters to a minuscule .212 average while posting 9-4, 2.20 numbers. If UNR is to make that quantum leap to an NCAA bid, Shipley’s right arm will be the catalyst to get that train rolling every weekend.

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IMPACT NEWCOMER

- Derick Velazquez, RHP, Fresno State.

With only three pitchers with more than 15 innings of work returning to the arms corps, this 15th round draft pick will play a huge role in rebuilding the pitching staff. Velazquez is the crown jewel of the nation’s 17th-best recruiting class.

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STEAL A LEAR JET FOR…

- New Mexico at Fresno State, May 10-12.

The MWC will have each team play the other five in home-and-home face-offs during the season. The second matchup between these two will take place in the second-to-last weekend of the regular season and will have MWC title and NCAA at-large ramifications… unless Nevadsa still the thunder from both of these two.

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CAPSULES…

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- AIR FORCE (14-39, 5-19)

2012 ISR: 232

Starters Returning: 8

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers: 3

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All Conference Candidates:

C/OF Garrett Custons (.316-4-20)

OF Alex Bast (.305-4-31)

1B/DH Seth Kline (.322-5-21, All-MWC)

RHP Cameron White (3-9, 5.16)

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NOTES:

- It’s always tough for the Falcons to be competitive in the MWC, especially since they are fighting uphill against all those sun belt schools, while sitting there in Colorado Springs as a cold-weather team. But it didn’t help last year when AFA had nearly the entire squad back from 2011′s 19-win unit, but wilted to just 14 wins last year, including just five MWC wins.

- Yep, the stat sheet doesn’t lie. Air Force needs solid improvement in every facet of the game after finishing dead last – and by a good amount in these cases – in hitting (.249), pitching (6.10) and defense (.959). Truth is, the pitching depth could be the biggest challenge to overcome as was obvious by their being outscored by 100 runs from the 5th inning on in games last season.

- One of my favorite lines from the 300+/- SIDs out there was from Nick Arseniak, the Air Force know-it-all SID. Regarding catcher Garrett Custons he said, “Arguably the best arm in college at catcher, 20-of-30 stolen base attempts thrown out in 2012 and that’s with about five botched catches by SS/2B.”

- The Falcons have a good base to build their offense around since Custons, Bast and Kline all hit .300+ last season. If they can find a few more bats to hit at that level, the Falcons might be able to play with just about anyone on their schedule… at least offensively.

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- FRESNO STATE (31-28, 8-10 in the WAC)

2012 ISR: 71

Starters Returning: 7

Weekend Starters: 1

Mid-Week Starters: 2

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 0

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All Conference Candidates:

OF Aaron Judge (.308-4-27)

1B Trent Garrison (.333-2-39)

C Austin Wynns (.284)

LHP Tyler Linehan (4-5, 3.58)

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NOTES:

- Well, this is NOT the Bulldog team we’re used to seeing. Sure, coach Mike Batesole and Co. made it to the NCAA tournament, finishing 3rd in Palo Alto, but a 5th place finish in WAC play and a losing record at 8-10 was uncharacteristic as hell. In fact it sucked. But we have to reiterate that the Dawgs did rally at the right time and won the WAC tourney to make it to the Field of 64. So a little bit of good and a good bit of bad to the 2012 season.

- Oh but keep in mind, when expectations are down and everyone is doubting how good Fresno State can be, those are the times coach Batesole loves the most. ‘Nuf said.

- Depending how you look at it, the Bulldogs are either loaded or threadbare. Seven returning starters in the field and at the dish should bode well for them. Four of the five infield positions return led by solid backstop Austin Wynns, who hit .284 last year but was a .326 hitter in 2011. Speaking of hoping to up the ante at the dish the soph trio of Jordan Luplow (.279), Chris Mariscal (.238) and Jordan Brink (.223) need to reach more of a comfort zone in 2013.

- But the threadbare side is the fact that only three pitchers of note return to the staff, led by starter Tyler Linehan. Beyond RHPs William Munro (1-2, 4.50 in 17apps) and Garrett Mundell (0-2, 6.38 in 18apps), there’s no one else with 15+ innings coming back. But the incoming class was ranked the 17th best in the country by Baseball America and features JC All American RHP Derick Velazquez, who was a 15th round draftee of the Orioles last June, and RHP Cameron Stewart, who is a scary 6’9″ talent and was drafted in the 20th round by the Padres.

- At 6’7″, Aaron Judge is a big strapper. He only hit four yard calls last season, but keep in mind that he won the college Home Run Derby at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha last summer. But with that you never know if he’ll see many good pitches to hit this year at all.

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- NEVADA (32-25, 11-7 in the WAC)

2012 ISR: 57

Starters Returning: 7

Weekend Starters: 3

Mid-Week Starters: 2

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 3

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All Conference Candidates:

RHP Bradey Shipley (9-4, 2.20, .212OBA)

RHP Tom Jameson (7-2, 2.55)

1B Kewby Meyer (.324)

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NOTES:

- The Wolfpack are never far from contender status, seemingly putting winning seasons after losing seasons back-to-back for years. Well last year, UNR put things together enough to pull off a Regular Season title in WAC play – tying with New Mexico State and Sacramento State. Not only that, but head coach Gary Powers also picked up win No. 900 in mid-April. So it was a pretty good season all-in-all.

- Though there was a lot of youth to last year’s team, the top two starters in Bradey Shipley and Tom Jameson were the leaning posts for the Wolfpack, combining for 16 wins and both with ERAs in the 2s. Shipley was named the WAC Pitcher of the Year and won’t have as many wind-tunnel fields to pitch on in the MWC. If they can rehash their Friday-Saturday one-two punch again this could be a very tough team to beat and give the Silver & Navy a chance to win the Mountain West title. Yes, I said it.

- Speaking of Bradey Shipley, he was also named the top prospect in the prestigious Alaska League last summer after putting up good numbers (going 1-2, 2.16 with 7svs) and getting his fast ball up to the low 90s consistently.

- With all three weekend starters back on the mound, Coach Powers admits that building up a youthful bullpen will be the key to the Wolf Pack season, especially with the loss of saves record-holder Matt Gardner and set-up man Timothy Culligan, who made 20 appearances and posted 2-2, 2.27 numbers.

- The recruiting class wasn’t high-rated by any of the biggest outlets, but a pair of JC transfers should come in and contribute heavily right away. The staff is so high on 2B Scott Kaplan and OF Brad Gerig they could both be headed for starting assignments.

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- NEW MEXICO (37-24, 18-6)

2012 ISR: 37

Starters Returning: 6

Weekend Starters: 1

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 4

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All Conference Candidates:

C Mitchell Garver (.377-10-57)

3B D.J. Peterson (.419-17-78)

OF Josh Melendez (.347-3-44, 27SBs)

OF Ryan Padilla (.353-5-49)

SS Ale Allbritton (.251)

RHP Josh Walker (8-3, 4.19)

RHP Sam Wolff (1-2, 5.52)

1B Alex Real (.271-3-29)

RHP Hobie McClain (2-1, 1.80, 3svs)

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NOTES:

- First off, you’ll be happy to know that Coach Ray Birmingham and I did not switch jobs in the off-season, which we talked about doing last June. Secondly, it’s probably not a shock that coach B is building a program that is on a drastic rise and to be feared when it comes to the diamond. He was a National Championship winning coach at New Mexico JC before coming to Albuquerque and he has established a tougher mindset on his Lobos program too. Because of that, UNM is becoming a winner.

- The Lobos hope to recapture that magical last half of the season, which saw the Lobos play nearly as good as anyone in the country at certain times in going 20-7 from Tax Day onward. UNM tied TCU for the MWC regular season title at 18-6 and then went unbeaten in the conference tournament on their way to a second straight NCAA Tournament run.

- They’ll have the luxury of having two absolute studs in the batting order and in vital defensive positions with Mitchell Garver, who is a difference-making athlete pulling off the rare feat of being a catcher AND the leadoff hitter in the lineup, and D.J. Peterson, a lock-down 3rd baseman who is also one of the top power sticks in the nation. When you have difference-makers like that at key positions all you need to do is add in a few steady role players and you’ll still have a chance in any game.

- Expected cleanup hitter Luke Campbell (.301 in 2011) missed all of last season with an injury that occurred right before the season began. He should be back for a big senior year this time around. Also returning after a year off from injury is senior OF Logan Lippert, who only hit .242 in 2011, but improved greatly as the season went on, becoming a starter in mid-April till the end of the season.

- There was some attrition in the pitching department, especially in staff ace Austin House, who went 8-5, 2.74 in 16 Friday night starts. They’ll also lose another 8-game winner in Saturday starter Gera Sanchez, saves leader Bobby Mares and 9-game starter Rudy Jaramillo. Whew! That’s a lot of losses.

- The Lobos have a much-ballyhooed incoming class of recruits who should supply a healthy amount of pitching to help restock the arms corps. The coaches are particularly high on RHP Tony Consiglio, a hard-throwing JC transfer from Las Vegas who could become a weekend starter. Also look for Consiglio’s teammate from Western Nevada in RHP Tyler Spencer, who can run-it up to the mid-90s and incoming frosh Tyler Duree, a wisp-built flinger who hits the low-90s on his fastball.

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- SAN DIEGO STATE (26-34, 12-12)

2012 ISR: 108

Starters Returning: 7

Weekend Starters: 3

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 6

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All Conference Candidates:

2B Tim Zier (.318, 10SBs)

OF Greg Allen (.312-2-31, 11SBs)

RHP Michael Cederoth (4-4, 4.14, .226OBA)

RHP Justin Hepner (5-3, 2.94, 7svs)

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NOTES:

- It may not look like it on the won-loss ledger, but the Aztecs made a lot of strides last season and were a lot more competitive than in 2011, including wins over teams like Washington, Oregon State, Cal Poly, Long Beach State and three wins over TCU, including eliminating the Frogs from the MWC tournament. They also won their way to the championship round in Vegas before losing to New Mexico.

- Pitching coach Eric Valenzuela must be chomping at the bit to get the season started, considering the wealth of talent and experience his staff has coming back, headed by weekend starters Michael Cederoth – who might be the hardest thrower in the country – Ryan Doran and Travis Pitcher. He’ll also welcome back saves leader Justin Hepner, who had the best ERA on the team at 2.94 and had the most wins on the staff.

- Of the seven returning starters, five are sophomores, led by Greg Allen and 3B Ryan Muno (.308-4-19). Also coming back to the fore will be catcher Brad Haynal, who redshirted in 2012, but was .242-3-16 as the starting backstop in 2011.

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- UNLV (26-31, 7-17)

2012 ISR: 136

Starters Returning: 5

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 5

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All Conference Candidates:

RHP Erick Fedde (6-5, 3.59, Freshman All American)

OF Brandon Bayardi (.361-7-53, 12SBs)

OF/LHP Mark Shannon (.313-6-39 & 3-3, 6.11, 1sv)

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NOTES:

- I like how candid coach Tim Chambers is. When his team was eliminated from the MWC Tournament last season he said his team was much better in 2012, despite having fewer wins than the 33-win season in 2011. “That was mostly because we played an easy schedule last year.” coach told me. He’s a good interview.

- Coach Chambers had to rely heavily on a pair of freshman starters on the mound with Erick Fedde and Zak Qualls (4-6, 5.71), who both had Friday starting assignments during the 2012 season. Look for even bigger strides from these guys this year.

- That rest of that outstanding recruiting class of a year ago is a year wiser/better. Look for improved seasons from 2nd-year guys like T.J. White (.223 in 51 starts), Erik VanMeetren (.287 in 25 starts), Joey Swanner (.311 in 38 starts) and RHP John Richy (2-2, 5.93).

- The schedule will be a tad on the ambitious side for the Rebels, especially the opener vs Tennessee and a three-gamer at Stanford a few weeks later. But on the upside of things, the Rebels will be sent to the three “cold-weather” locales of the MWC, at UNM, at UNR and at Air Force, all in the last four weeks of the regular season. So they’ll avoid the big chill in conference play.

 

COMMENTS:

February 4, 2013 at 9:24 pm
ben says:

Fresno State needs big offensive years from that trio of sophomores that you mentioned. All three were highly recruited players and should take big steps forward in their sophomore years. All three struggled mightily at the plate throughout most of 2012. Aaron Judge is getting a lot of preseason hype and I hope he can finally turn into the kind of power threat everyone has been expecting from him since he stepped on campus. Velazquez is supposedly the real deal and could challenge for the Friday night job. Looking forward to seeing him in action. I am glad to have New Mexico in the same league as the Bulldogs. They have been a very solid program for a while now and have some great players like you mentioned.