by Ryan Suppe
On Feb. 19, Nevada opened its season in Mesa, Arizona, where the team took on Northwestern in a four-game series under new head coach T.J. Bruce. The Wolf Pack and Wildcats split the series, and Bruce is 2-2 in his first season as a Division 1 college baseball coach.
Northwestern won the first two games in a doubleheader on Friday by a score of 4-2 and 5-1. Nevada took the next two games as the offense exploded for an 11-2 win on Saturday and 10-6 win on Sunday.
Sophomore outfielder T.J. Friedl led the Wolf Pack offense with seven hits in 17 at-bats, including one home run and six runs scored over the weekend. Junior college transfer Miles Mastrobuoni and junior Justin Bridgeman each had three stolen bases. Junior pitcher Ty Pennington made two appearances out of the bullpen in which he tossed three and two-thirds innings, giving up one run on two hits, and he tallied four strikeouts.
Nevada’s batting order experienced an extreme makeover this year; however, many of the same pitchers will return to the mound for the Wolf Pack in 2016. The pitching staff returns most of its innings from the 2015 team, and that experience showed this weekend against Northwestern.
The Wolf Pack gave up 17 runs on the series, which may seem like a lot, but Nevada starters put their team in a position to win in every game. Starting pitchers gave up just 10 runs over 23 and one-third innings with an earned run average of 3.86 on the weekend.
“They forced contact early, they didn’t worry about striking everybody out, they used our defense,” said Bruce. “The pitching staff in general showed their maturity.”
The highlight of the pitching staff in the first series was a man who hadn’t started a game in over a year and a half, Mark Nowaczewski. The right-handed, redshirt sophomore started game three of the series after sitting out last season as a medical redshirt for Tommy John surgery.
“He only threw three innings this fall,” Bruce said. “It was an ongoing recovery process, and he earned his spot by the way he came out and worked.”
In an 11-2 Nevada win on Saturday, Nowaczewski threw six innings, giving up three hits and one earned run, and he is credited with the first win on the pitching staff of the season. Northwestern hitters batted .143 against him.
While the pitching staff averaged four runs allowed per game this weekend, the Nevada bats struggled to get going until game three.
In 2015, four runs allowed per game would be more than enough for Nevada’s offense, but Austin Byler, Ryan Howell, Kewby Meyer and Cal Stevenson are all gone. In 2015, those four hitters combined for 291 hits, 37 home runs and 197 runs batted in.
Nevada does return Trenton Brooks and Bryce Greager, who were big offensive producers last year, but Bruce has said that the Wolf Pack lacks one of those big power hitters this year. So the challenge will be to find a way to score runs other than the long ball.
“We are pretty multidimensional, and we can do quite a bit,” said Bruce. “We can drag, we can push, we can run, we were nine for 10 on stolen bases this weekend, so if we can stay the course we’ll be fine.”
As expected, Brooks and Greager started in the middle of the order for the doubleheader on Friday. Brooks hit third and Greager hit fourth. But on Saturday, Bruce moved Brooks into the leadoff spot, a move he attributes to some of his past coaching experiences.
“The thought process behind it was to get him one more or two more at-bats,” Bruce said. “I remember a staff that I coached on at Long Beach State in 2005 Tulowitzki hit leadoff, and a staff last year I coached on at UCLA our second round shortstop hit leadoff or second.”
Bruce says he’s not sure if Brooks will stay in the leadoff spot. For now, he’s in pretty good company being compared to Troy Tulowitzki.
The Wolf Pack remains in the Phoenix area this week where it will play Arizona State in a single game on Tuesday. The Sun Devils are off to a 4-0 start after sweeping Xavier on opening weekend.
Ryan Suppe can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @SalSuppe.