The BYU baseball team has added plenty of new talent to a team with a solid returning core. The team hopes to improve on last season’s 28-25 record and make a deep run into the postseason.
Fifteen freshmen have joined the Cougar roster, including high school All-American right fielder Kyle Dean, outfielder Danny Gelalich and third baseman Jackson Cluff. Dean will likely start in right field while Gelalich will see plenty of playing time in the outfield according to head coach Mike Littlewood. Cluff is also the frontrunner to start at third.
The Cougars will count on these freshmen to take care of the infield and outfield, but it is right-handed junior pitcher Michael Rucker who will be on the mound on opening day. Rucker throws four pitches for strikes in the low to mid 90s with a lot of different angles, but it’s his demeanor that has him starting the season for the Cougars.
“Mike’s a proven guy, he’s been there before,” Littlewood said. “He’s just going to set a great tone for us and give us a chance to win every single game.”
Littlewood said Rucker could be the West Coast Conference Pitcher of the Year.
The Cougars also welcome two junior college transfers, pitchers Connor Williams and Kendall Motes. Motes features a low 90s fastball and throws four pitches for strikes. Williams also features a low 90s fastball, but is comfortable pitching at 94-95 mph. Littlewood said Williams has a “major league arm” and is learning to throw his secondary pitches for strikes. Both Motes and Williams will likely be in the starting rotation for opening weekend.
BYU has also added depth to its bullpen, an area it has lacked in previous seasons. Sophomores Maverik Buffo, Riley Gates, Hayden Rogers and Mason Marshall, along with freshman Easton Walker, will play big roles for the Cougars out of the pen. Buffo, Gates and Rogers are also potential starting pitchers if the need arises.
Rounding out the defensive starting lineup will be returning leadoff hitter and center fielder Brennon Lund, left fielder Eric Urry, catchers Bronson Larsen and Colton Shaver, returning starters Tanner Chauncey at first base, Brennon Anderson at second base and senior Hayden Nielsen at shortstop.
For Nielsen, it’s all about what he can do to help the team win.
“I don’t really want to be an ‘I’ guy,” Nielsen said. “I want to be a team guy.”
The team’s focus is on winning more games. BYU had many late leads that it wasn’t able to secure last season.
“We need to play consistent baseball,” said assistant coach Trent Pratt. “We need to play the right way and play hard and just do those things that we try to work on everyday.”
The Cougars know it will take good pitching, hitting, defense and clutch performances in big moments if they want to secure a regional berth.
“I’m really excited to see exactly what kind of fight we’re going to put up,” Rucker said. “I know it’s going to be a good one.”
BYU was knocked out of the West Coast Conference tournament early last season, losing to both Pepperdine and San Diego. This year the team hopes for a different outcome as they strive to go all the way to a conference championship.
“It’s not out of our reach,” Littlewood said. “This team has the personnel to be able to do it.”
The Cougars believe they have what it takes and they won’t be satisfied with anything less.
“This team would be disappointed if we don’t make a run to the NCAA tournament,” assistant coach Brent Haring said.
The Cougars open the season on Feb. 19 hosting Saint Louis University in a four-game series at Cashman Field in Las Vegas. Home games begin on March 8 with the Cougars squaring off against UVU.