By Neil Patrick Healy
Nevada baseball will begin its Mountain West title defense with a new look. The obvious change is at head coach, with TJ Bruce taking over after Jay Johnson left for Arizona, but the program as a whole will look and play differently in 2016.
The Wolf Pack was a well-oiled machine at the plate in 2015. Nevada was fourth in the nation in runs scored with eight runs per game. That’s to be expected when you have Austin Byler, Kewby Meyer, Ryan Howell, Jordan Devencenzi, Kyle Hunt and Cal Stevenson in the lineup, but all those at-bats have to be replaced. Byler, Meyer, Howell and Devencenzi were drafted, while Stevenson transferred to a junior college and is committed to follow Johnson to Arizona.
With six of the nine spots in the lineup being replaced, putting runs on the board may prove to be a struggle. The cupboard isn’t bare; however, with preseason Mountain West player of the year Trenton Brooks, third basemen Bryce Greager and Jordan Pearce returning, the top of the order will be difficult to pitch around in 2016.
With all the turnover entering this season, the constant strength that brings back almost its full strength is the pitching staff. The Wolf Pack returns 65 percent of its innings pitched in 2015. The staff is headlined by the preseason Mountain West pitcher of the year in Christian Stolo, who went 8-2 with a 2.83 ERA. Brooks, a two-way player, also returns to the mound after going 4-1 with a 3.65 ERA in 2015. Other pitchers projected to be in the starting rotation are Zach Wilkins, 2-0, 3.26 ERA, and Mark Nowaczewski, who missed 2015 to offseason arm surgery. Evan McMahan, Cameron Rowland and Michael Fain solidify the returning arms and the pitching staff will be looked to as one of the main strengths of this team.
“I think we’ve got a lot of arms,” Bruce said.
That’s a simple statement, but having a plethora of quality pitching is a recipe to win games.
The defense for Nevada isn’t a solidified strength, but it is being emphasized more and more by the coaching staff. Bruce was mentored by UCLA coach John Savage as a longtime assistant, and the staples of UCLA’s success were pitching and defense. Nevada has the task of replacing its catcher, both middle infielders and the center fielder, but there may be more options in the lineup than just nine guys. The only positions that look to be locked down are Brooks in left field, Greager at third and Pearce at first. The rest of the field is uncertain, but it is projected that TJ Friedl will take over in center field while UCLA transfer Justin Hazzard will split time with freshman Kaleb Foster at catcher. The Pack won’t have the luxury of having MLB draft picks in the lineup putting runs on the board, so the defense will have to be able to back up the pitching staff in order to win games.
Matching Nevada’s record of 41 wins in 2015 is a tough mark to reach. The team is built differently and is replacing a lot of major league talent, but that doesn’t mean Nevada won’t be successful. At every level of baseball, the team with good pitching and good defense usually wins in postseason play. UCLA has won national championships with that formula. The San Francisco Giants have carved out a Dynasty with that formula.
It isn’t the flashiest way to win ballgames, but pitching and defense are what win games that matter. Will Nevada win the Mountain West? Probably not. San Diego State enters the season as the favorite, but Nevada may be better equipped to win big games down the stretch with the new formula that Bruce has been introducing since he arrived in Reno. Do not expect 41 wins again, but don’t expect a drop-off either. The Pack will continue to be in the top tier in the Mountain West.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @NP_Healy.