PROVO — There are more newcomers on the 2020 BYU baseball team than returning players, but that isn’t stopping eight-year coach Mike Littlewood from saying this squad is totally capable of defending its 2019 West Coast Conference championship.
“With as young as we are, I am sure there are going to be a lot of growing pains as we go through the season,” Littlewood said Tuesday. “So it might be different than last year, but we definitely have the talent to win our league again.”
The Cougars open the season on Friday at 5 p.m. against a familiar foe: West Coast Conference rival Gonzaga. Their opening game in the Sanderson Ford Baseball Classic in Surprise, Arizona, is a nonconference contest, but is intriguing nevertheless because the Zags are picked to win the WCC this year and BYU is picked to finish second.
BYU will play a doubleheader against former Mountain West rival New Mexico on Saturday before concluding the trip with a game against No. 25 Oregon State on Monday. The Cougars will also play four-game series at Big West 2019 runner-up Cal Poly and New Mexico before facing Utah Valley in their home opener on March 3.
Littlewood is preaching patience after the senior-laden Cougars went 36-17 and won their first outright conference title in 30 years last spring. BYU’s bats went silent in the conference tournament and they lost 4-1 to LMU and 3-1 to Gonzaga and failed to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, leaving a sour taste the coach hopes serves as motivation this year.
“We may not jump out of the chutes quickly and be world-beaters right off, but I think we will be better in April than we are this weekend,” Littlewood said. “Talent-wise, we are really good, just really young. Our goal is always to win our league, though, and I think we have the guys who can do that.”
Having tied for the regular-season WCC championship in 2016 and 2017 and won the tournament championship in 2017, the Cougars will probably have to rely on pitching if they want to make the NCAAs for the first time in three seasons.
There are 19 newcomers on the team to go with 16 players who saw playing time in Provo last year or the year prior; Seventeen of the new guys are freshmen. All 35 players will make the trip to Arizona because they all earned the right with their work and preparation in the offseason.
“Our pitching is definitely our strength, on paper,” he said. “We probably have 12 or 13 guys we can go to with no issues and no anxiety and just give them the ball and they are going to get a lot of outs. … It is exciting to know that you are going to hold teams down, for the most part, and give yourselves a chance to win.” — BYU head coach Mike Littlewood
“Usually, there are 10 to 12 new guys, but the 2019 signing class was really special, really filled with good players, and you don’t want good players like that to come in and sit for a few years,” he said. “So we made room and kinda planned on those guys coming in and helping us right now.”
The class was ranked as the 16th best in the nation by D1Baseball.com and 25th by Baseball America and is being called the “best class in program history” by the website. It is loaded with quality pitchers, including lefties Cy Neilson of Spanish Fork High, Cutter Clawson of Laguna Beach, California, and right-handers Carter Smith of Skyridge High, Tyson Heaton of Yucaipa, California, and Bryce Robison of Las Vegas.
Those fresh arms will join returning pitchers Justin Sterner, Easton Walker, Drew Zimmerman, Mitch McIntyre, Jarod Lessar and 2019 Freshman All-American Reid McLaughlin to give BYU as deep a pitching staff as the program has ever had, Littlewood said.
“Our pitching is definitely our strength, on paper,” he said. “We probably have 12 or 13 guys we can go to with no issues and no anxiety and just give them the ball and they are going to get a lot of outs. … It is exciting to know that you are going to hold teams down, for the most part, and give yourselves a chance to win.”
Neilson, the 2019 Gatorade Utah Baseball Player of the Year, will get the start in game 2, after junior right-hander Justin Sterner gets it in the opener. Junior right-hander Easton Walker, a preseason all-WCC pick, and senior right-hander Jarod Lessar will also begin the season in the starting rotation.
But while pitching should be a strength this season, offense could be a problem.
The Cougars lost a couple big bats, as Brock Hale (11 home runs), Brian Hsu and Noah Hill exhausted their eligibility and Jackson Cluff (.328 average) was taken in the sixth round of the MLB draft.
All-WCC outfielder McIntyre, who also pitches, returns after hitting .291 with 14 doubles and seven homers, along with fellow junior outfielder Danny Gelalich (.328 average), infielders Austin Deming and Zack Peterson. and senior catcher Abe Valdez. But the Cougars will have to get good seasons from College of Southern Idaho transfer Hayden Leatham and fellow newcomers Clawson, Sean Rimmer, McKay Barney and Joshua Cowden to make up for the lack of power hitters.
Of course, a lot of BYU fans will be watching how outfielder Jaren Hall does, because the multi-sport star is also vying to be the Cougars’ starting quarterback in spring camp. Littlewood said Hall is “probably our third- or fourth-best outfielder defensively” and will be in the mix for playing time.
“You add in what a great person he is, and he is a guy who you have to have on your team,” Littlewood said. “He will make you better.”
Littlewood said sharing Hall with football “is part of the deal” and he is grateful for any access to the player that he gets, realizing that football has to be a priority for the former Maple Mountain High star.