By Nicholas Cottle
Starting the season with a 0-8 record, the Cougar baseball team pulled the trigger on the rest of the season, winning 33 of their last 53 games.
“We as a staff had an awful lot of confidence that we had the right people,” BYU head coach Vance Law said. “It was just going to take a maturation process … and once those guys got comfortable we knew we would take off.”
The Cougars played six freshmen on opening night, balancing them with only five seniors, making the transition into division one college play slow for the young players.
“The most important thing was our young freshman finally getting it straight in their minds that they can compete at this level,” Law said. “Our seniors tried to do too much at the start because we were starting five or six freshman.”
Team leader Ben Saylor was one of those seniors, posting only five hits in the first eight games. He then powered BYU”s offense the rest of the season with 79 hits in the last 53 games, including 21 dingers and 17 doubles.
“There was no way I was going to take Ben Saylor … out of the line-up because [he] proved to me that [he] would get it together,” Law said. “And [he] did in a big way!”
Saylor was named Louisville Slugger third-team All-American and was a repeat first-team All-Mountain West Conference player.
“I am ecstatic for him,” Law said. “To have the rough start he had to begin this season and turn it around is a tribute to his work and belief in what we try to do.”
Saylor led the Cougars in home runs (21), batting average (.354), runs (58), hits (84), doubles (17), RBIs (66), game-winning RBIs (5), total bases (168) and slugging percentage (.709).
Even with Saylor”s help it still seems an improbable turn around beginning the season 0-8 and ended 33-28. How did the Cougars do it? Haircuts.
“Our backs were to the wall in our series against Southern Utah and believe it or not they all gave themselves crew cuts and convinced me to do it too,” Law said. “It was about that time that we started to relax a little more and played a little better frame of baseball.”
Law said it was important for his team to relax and not put so much pressure on themselves. The team cutting their hair together was just another way to do that.
“I thought it was pretty gross that they [the players] kept the bag of hair and brought it with them on the road,” he said. “But there”s a lot of downtime in baseball and it”s a long season, so we let them have their fun but make sure they stay focused and remember what they”re here for.”
True freshmen pitcher Jordan Muir was one young player that seemed relaxed and ready to compete at the Division I level from the start. The freshman phenom chalked up a perfect 6-0 record along with the team”s third best ERA (3.97) and third most innings pitched (68).
“For a kid that we didn”t expect to be one of our weekend starters at all this year, we were thrilled with Jordan”s success,” Law said. “He is one of our top three pitchers going into next year.”
This year”s top pitcher Jesse Craig will be leaving the team a year early to make his way into the majors. Craig averaged one strikeout for every five batters he faced and pitched 20 percent of all innings this season.
“He wants to play professional baseball and this is the time he has got to take,” Law said. “Is it going to hurt our program? Absolutely. It always does, just like if we would have had Brandon Taylor this year we would have won the championship.”
After turning their program on a dime about 15 games into the season, the Cougars went on a tear finishing the season with a .540 winning percentage but falling inches short of the MWC championship for the second straight year.
BYU was able to get sweet revenge on UNLV for stealing the championship away from them in 2005 but were unable to overcome top seeded TCU with both their tournament loses coming to the Horned Frogs.
The sweetest victory of the season came in round two of the tournament when BYU faced eternal rival Utah.
With a box of 25 DVDs of the comeback thriller sitting on his desk, Law was eager to distribute his personal highlight of the season to his colleagues in the athletic department.
“The atmosphere on the bench and seeing these players pull for one another was incredible,” Law said. “Not just because it was Utah but because we played well and we never gave up.”
Law did admit that the win against Utah was the cherry on top for not only his team but for the whole athletic department and alumni at BYU.
Utah had knocked BYU out of many sports throughout the year, Law said, and this victory was a huge morale booster for BYU.
Law hopes to turn the success and maturing of his young players this year into a 2007 championship season.
However, losing Marcos Villezcas, who Law said was most likely the best shortstop BYU has seen in 30 years, Ben Saylor, a nationally ranked slugger, and Jesse Craig, a potential Major League talented pitcher, there are big cleats to fill.
Law seems confident in his young personnel and promises to have one of the fastest outfields in the nation next year along with a solid recruiting class.
With a hands-on coach that is often prouder of his “25 extra sons” accomplishments off the field then he is with their work on the field, the Cougar baseball program is clawing to the top in many respects.
“I think our guys did a really good job, especially the way they battled back this year,” Law said. “Our focus and our senior leadership were very good and provided the necessary spark for us after such a slow start.”