OAKLAND, Calif. — Born again.

BYU’s Brock Watkins and Collin Reuter are changed souls. Losing what they loved hit them like a fastball to the forehead. Getting it all back is a game changer, both for them individually and for the Cougars’ young baseball team that needs their leadership and decorum.

“Sitting out all that time makes you want to work harder, and it opens your eyes that it can be gone at any minute. You can never take a pitch off and must always go as hard as you can.” — BYU first baseman Brock Watkins

Watkins missed all but eight games last season with a torn left hamstring. Reuter sat out the last 18 months after a pair of right-elbow surgeries. With the restoration of their health and return to Trent Pratt’s starting lineup, the two have turned to proselytizing — and they have a message to sell.

“Sitting out all that time makes you want to work harder, and it opens your eyes that it can be gone at any minute,” said Watkins, the Deseret News’ 2019 Mr. Baseball from Pleasant Grove High. “You can never take a pitch off and must always go as hard as you can.”

For Reuter, distance made his heart grow fonder.

“To have something that you love taken away hurts. Sometimes you don’t realize how much you love it,” Reuter said. “It’s an honor to be back with the guys and be on the field instead of sitting in the dugout watching.”

Making life even more interesting is the fact that the lineup Watkins and Reuter returned to is a lot different than the one they left.

Reuter’s new view

When Reuter, the 6-foot-3 product from Olive Branch, Mississippi, crouches down into the catcher’s position and waits for a pitch, he can see seven new faces looking back at him. His 2022 season was off the charts — for anyone, let alone a freshman.

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In 46 games behind the plate, Reuter had just one error. He also hit six home runs and nine doubles. Expectations for his sophomore year were soaring. The only thing that could keep him grounded would be an injury.

After a fall workout, Reuter noticed some soreness in his right elbow.

“I told the trainer my elbow was hurting. They checked it out and I was in surgery the next day,” he said. “There was an issue with my growth plate and some urgency to get it fixed and get me back on the field for the spring.”

The surgery didn’t take, and Reuter started to worry.

“I didn’t know what to do. I was in a weird spot mentally,” he said. “I was just there. I didn’t travel with the team. I was just sitting around in Provo. I didn’t know what was going on.”

BYU catcher Collin Reuter between innings in the Cougars dugout in Miller Park in Provo. Elbow surgery derailed his baseball career for 18 months but he is back in the lineup for the Cougars in 2024. | Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

A second surgery fixed the issue but extended Reuter’s physical and emotional recovery time to 18 months. In his first regular-season game last week against USC, Reuter, playing with a smile of gratitude on his face, went 2-for-4 with an RBI. As for his elbow after a full week of competition, he said, “This is the best my arm has felt in years.”

“Collin is pretty calm behind the plate,” said Pratt, a former catcher at Arizona State and Auburn. “Pitchers like throwing to him. His presence back there is good. He also has some thump in the lineup offensively. It makes our lineup deeper having him there.”

While most of the roster is new for Reuter, there is one familiar face playing in a most unfamiliar place.

Watkins at first base

During his first three seasons, Watkins appeared in 122 games, starting most of them. Not once did he play first base. In fact, he hasn’t been on the right side of the infield since he was 12 years old. That changed during practice three weeks ago.

“It is different for sure, but I’m getting more comfortable every day,” Watkins said. “I have a lot to learn and improve on, but I don’t mind it. I’ll play wherever they want to put me.”

For Pratt, moving the 6-foot junior to first base was completely strategic.

“We are just trying to get our best nine guys in the lineup,” Pratt said. “Brock has experience. He has played all over, and we felt like to get our best guys on the field, it’s to put him at first base.”

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Watkins led the 2022 Cougars with 214 at-bats during their 33-21 season. He hit eight home runs, eight doubles, three triples and drove in 33 runs. Watkins defended at shortstop like he had been there forever — which he had. Like Reuter, 2023 was set up to be a special season, until an injury got in the way.

Eight games into the schedule, Watkins suffered a season-ending, six-inch tear in his left hamstring.

“It was a long year to sit and wish I was out there,” he said. “Just to be back it shows me you can’t take anything for granted.”

He isn’t taking his new job lightly, either.

“There is a lot to it,” he said. “You have to worry about pickoffs, fielding your position and then getting back to the bag if the ball goes somewhere else.”

During a close play at first base against Grand Canyon on Monday, Watkins caught the ball just as the runner collided with his shoulder. Not only did he hang onto it, but he kept his foot on the bag for the much-needed out to end the inning.

“It’s different. I have different obligations out there, but it’s just another position on the field,” he said. “If you are an athlete, you can play anywhere. I tell myself to just be an athlete.”

A first baseman is often the target of wayward throws from teammates that aren’t terribly different from the variety of hard hits Watkins has scooped up at shortstop for years. Pratt is banking on that.

“Some of our best first basemen we’ve had have been former shortstops,” Pratt said. “We had Brock Whitney when we first got here. Then we had Tanner Chauncey and Bryan Hsu after that. Those guys were all plus-plus defenders at first base, and so far, Brock has been the same.”

Leaders lead

BYU (1-3) opens a three-game series at UC Davis (2-1) on Thursday (3 p.m., BYU Radio, 107.9 FM) before returning to Provo to host Gonzaga Feb. 29-March 2 at Miller Park. Cal defeated the Cougars 8-0 Wednesday night in Berkeley. The role Watkins and Reuter play will only grow in importance during the Cougars’ first season in the Big 12, which starts March 7 at West Virginia.

“Collin and I need to step up in a big way to try and lead these guys,” Watkins said. “We’ve been in these situations before. We’ve played good teams. I’m so pumped that Collin is back healthy.”

Pratt is pumped that both players are finally back.

“Sometimes you don’t know what you have until it’s gone,” Pratt said. “For those guys to have to sit and watch all last year, I’m sure it wasn’t easy. When they had a chance to get back on the field last fall, you could tell there was a little light in their eyes and some fire.”

Watkins and Reuter are born again and, on a mission, to convert the rest of the roster into believing that comebacks are always possible, and that BYU can compete in a conference where the opposing coaches picked them to finish in a tie for last place.

BYU’s Collin Reuter slides safely into home at Miller Park in Provo. | Donovan Kelly, BYU Photo