Feb. 16, 2012
UT Arlington coach Darin Thomas has enjoyed numerous marquee victories during his four years as head coach. But this year he has his sights set on just one: the win that leads to hoisting the Southland Conference Tournament championship trophy at the end of May.
It is easy to look back at the 2011 season and recall the losing streak that dropped the Mavericks from a potential top-two seed in the Southland Tournament to the outside looking in. However, this is a team that scored five wins over nationally ranked teams - two over Wichita State, two over Texas State and another against TCU. UT Arlington also swept the three-game series with Dallas Baptist, which ultimately advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals.
So the ability for UT Arlington to beat whomever it plays is there. Now Thomas and his staff are searching for the consistency to take the Southland Conference championship trophy home before the program heads to the Western Athletic Conference the following season.
There will be some obstacles to overcome. Most notably, the Mavericks must find a way to replace four-year starting catcher Chad Comer, who was selected by the Atlanta Braves in the Major League Baseball Draft last June. UT Arlington also must fill holes on the left side of the infield, with both third baseman Brian Nephew - a second-team All-Southland Conference selection in 2011 - and shortstop Jesse Payne having graduated.
However, the Mavs return plenty of talent. Right fielder Preston Beck leads that charge. Beck hit .307 with five home runs and 35 RBI despite playing through a fairly significant injury for the entire spring. Ryan Walker also returns after earning a spot on the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America team a year ago.
The team's success, however, will largely hinge on its pitching staff. Last year the Mavericks had to replace 75 percent of their innings pitched in 2010. This year is much different, as the team returns the bulk of its pitching staff, including weekend starters Lance Day, Collin Reynolds and John Beck.
There is no shortage of candidates for UT Arlington in the starting pitching category.
Several of pitching coach Jay Sirianni's hurlers have shown glimpses of being capable of handling a role in the rotation. "I thought after fall practice that the strength of our club is our pitching staff," UTA coach Darin Thomas said. "We get the majority of our innings returning and then we have a bunch of newcomers who are well ahead of schedule."
Lance Day is the most proven of the group, having led the team in innings pitched, wins and strikeouts last year. For most of the season, Day was UTA's most consistent starter and regularly worked deep into games - including a 10-inning complete-game win at Nicholls.
John Beck should also have an opportunity to start the year in the rotation. He started last season as something of a wild card and endured a tough fall before finding his rhythm in the spring. On March 15, he earned a relief win over No. 9 TCU by holding the Horned Frogs to two runs on four hits while striking out five in 4 1/3 innings. By season's end, John Beck emerged as one of the pitchers the coaching staff trusted most. He is a serious breakout candidate in 2012.
"He has a high ceiling, just like a number of them do," Thomas said. "The big thing is he was out there as a freshman and he has experience on the mound."
Collin Reynolds took some time to adjust to his role during his first year at UT Arlington, but pitched some critical innings down the stretch. His 8-plus inning start at Lamar was easily his best of the season - and one in which he deserved better than a no-decision. Reynolds also proved valuable in the back end of the bullpen if that is the role Sirianni chooses for him.
There are numerous additional candidates for the starting rotation, but the returning three weekend starters are the probable favorites heading into the Feb. 17 opener at Louisiana Tech.
Of the potential options to jump into the rotation, southpaw Adam Boydston is perhaps the most intriguing. The Mavericks toyed with the idea of moving Boydston to the rotation last year, but ultimately decided to leave him in the bullpen. The fifth-year senior has been the club's closer for the last three years and has proven he can deliver the crucial late-game outs.
Boydston's candidacy for the rotation might depend on whether another viable option emerges for the closer position. He closed out seven wins last year despite undergoing Tommy John surgery in April 2010. Now his velocity is back and he has a feel for his off-speed pitches again, which could make Boydston a player for a starting rotation spot.
True freshman Chad Nack is another pitcher to watch. He has tremendous talent and could move into the starting rotation prior to making his collegiate debut.
If Adam Boydston is in the bullpen, he immediately becomes the leading candidate for the closer role. The southpaw enters his senior season seven saves shy of tying the all-time UT Arlington record.
Coaches also think Chad Nack, another starting candidate, also has the repertoire and mental makeup to handle the ninth-inning role. He would be a leading candidate if Boydston moves to the rotation.
There are plenty of options for getting to the final frame as well.
The Mavericks return several capable arms in the bullpen, including Michael Morales. The senior right-hander last year went 2-1 with a couple saves and a 1.57 ERA in 27 appearances. He also struck out 26 hitters and held opposing hitters to a .216 batting average.
Adam Westbrook gives UT Arlington another strong left-handed option. During the final week of the season, Westbrook proved to be one of UTA's best pitchers. He finished the season with a 1-0 record and a save with a 2.25 ERA in 12 appearances. The southpaw missed the fall with an arm issue, leaving him as a bit of a question mark heading into 2012.
"If he comes back as strong as he was at the end of the spring last year, he will have a very good spring this year, too," Thomas said. "It is nice to have a lefty coming out of the pen to come in and do some matchup stuff with."
Kasey Merck showed flashes of brilliance during his freshman season. He was a bit erratic at times, but has the arm and the tools to be a dominant force in the back end of the bullpen. Merck, who can also be a starter, went 2-1 with a 4.50 ERA in 38.0 innings a year ago.
"He made a really nice jump from last year to this year," Thomas said. "He had a really good summer in Liberal, Kan. The biggest thing for him is command of a second pitch. If he has that, he is going to be in good shape."
Michael Oberto, another senior who could earn a spot in the rotation, was a spot starter last year. He ranked fourth on the team with 50 1/3 innings pitched, going 2-0 with a 3.58 ERA.
A couple true freshmen, Zach Thompson and Ryan Scott, are also expected to come in and contribute right away. There presence is escpecially important because UTA has lost Sam Hansen for the year after he underwent Tommy John surgery in the fall.
"I really like our freshmen," Thomas said. "I think they are going to be really good and be contributors here."
Replacing Chad Comer behind the plate will be no simple task for UT Arlington. While Comer was a strong producer throughout his career, his true value lied more in the intangibles, such as managing an inexperienced pitching staff.
Whoever assumes the role this year will have big shoes to fill, but will also have the advantage of a largely veteran pitching staff.
Greg McCall seems a logical frontrunner for the starting catcher spot. He started the season as the team's designated hitter as a freshman in 2011 and, despite some struggles from the batter's box, showed promise behind the plate. He also displayed power during his freshman campaign, sprinkling a couple of doubles, a triple and a home run among his 16 hits last year.
Daniel Garcia hoped to make a strong push for the starting job during the fall, but a broken ankle during summer ball proved to be a setback. He is still expected to have an opportunity to compete for the starting backstop position in the spring. Garcia can handle himself behind the plate and is a better hitter than his .214 batting average in limited at-bats last year would indicate.
"Our catchers are the key to our season - how well they do," Thomas said. "Our pitching is going to be good. Our catchers have to do a good job catching, keeping the ball in front of them, being accurate when they throw and just being solid defensively. We do not need them to be flashy. We just need them to be solid."
Sophomore Colten Boothe, a newcomer to the team, logged some time at catcher during the fall out of necessity. In the process, he gained the trust of his coaches as a backup catcher. It would not be a shock to see Boothe get some work behind the plate in 2012.
Jordan Vaughn returns as a two-year starter at first base and hopes to shake off an uncharacteristic offensive season, during which he hit just .267, to enjoy a strong finish to his career.
Vaughn is certainly capable of returning to the form that made him a .314 hitter with 30 RBI as a sophomore in 2010. He was named to the All-Southland Conference Tournament team that year. Even with his average dipping last year, Vaughn still showed some power. He finished second on the team with 13 doubles and drove in 26 runs. The key statistic for Vaughn will be cutting down on his 45 strikeouts from a year ago.
"Jordan had a good fall," Thomas said. "He made some adjustments. As a fifth-year senior, he is very capable of having a breakout year. We need him to do that - to hit in the middle of our order and have a big year for us to be successful."
Other options at first base include Cody Dyvig, a junior, and Colten Boothe. Dyvig has always shown flashes of being a good hitter and did a respectable job manning the first base position last year. Though Dyvig hit just .242 last year, he had several big pinch-hitting appearances for the Mavericks.
How open this position battle is likely hinges on Michael Guerra's health. The senior, nicknamed "Panda," showed an ability to hit like nickname-sake Pablo Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants. Before suffering an injury midway through last year, Guerra was one of the most threatening hitters in the UT Arlington lineup. After the injury, the Mavericks were not the same team offensively.
Guerra finished the year hitting .266 with 10 doubles and a pair of home runs after batting well over .300 and leading the team in slugging percentage pre-injury.
If healthy, Guerra will play second base or third base and will also be a difference-maker on defense. If not, he could be relegated to a designated hitter role on the days he feels good enough to play.
"Hopefully we get Michael Guerra's back healthy enough to where he can help us out as a senior - especially in the middle of the order," Thomas said.
There are several fill-in options for Guerra if he is not healthy enough to play second base. One of those options is true freshman Derek Miller, who proved to be one of the toughest outs during the fall.
Junior-college transfer Stewart Hill could also be in that mix depending on how the shortstop competition shakes out.
Another newcomer, true freshman Travis Sibley, should be in play for the second base position as well. Sibley has the potential to be a Ryan Walker-type presence as a tough out in the UTA lineup.
Cody Dyvig is also an option at second base.
Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America selection Ryan Walker has a strong chance of opening the season at shortstop after playing well there all fall.
Walker showed great range and a strong enough arm to handle the position defensively. He showed as a freshman that he also possesses the ability to play every day - a major factor for the coaching staff when selecting a starting shortstop.
"He did a very good job playing shortstop for us this fall," Thomas said. "He played even better than I anticipated."
As a freshman, Walker was one of UTA's best offensive weapons, hitting .322 with 13 doubles. More impressively, he drove in a team-high 37 runs despite batting leadoff all year. Walker also showed enough plate discipline to draw 28 walks. Once on base, Walker can cause problems as well, stealing 11 bags a year ago.
Junior-college transfer Stewart Hill has a chance to battle with Walker for the starting spot this spring, but Hill's chances were diminished after he missed the majority of fall practice with an injury.
Travis Sibley is another option after showing he can handle the position during the fall.
Entering the fall, Brent Bollinger did not even have a spot on the roster. By the end of the fall he had emerged as a favorite to win the starting position. Bollinger, a long-time friend of Lance Day's, spent the last two years playing football at Odessa Community College before deciding to give baseball a shot. Now he has a chance to be the opening day third baseman.
Michael Guerra could see time at third base if his health permits. There are several additional options at the position, including Stewart Hill and Travis Sibley. True freshman Emil Litterer will also compete for playing time at the third-base spot.
A sleeper at the position could be Preston Beck, who played third sparingly as a freshman.
Replacing the offensive production of Brian Nephew, who hit .358 with 17 doubles and 31 RBI last year, is no easy task. Still, the Mavericks think they might have found a rising star in Bollinger.
With a solid season, Preston Beck could emerge as an early-round draft pick in the Major League Baseball Draft. There is good reason: Beck is a five-tool player who showed his potential this summer during an outstanding stint in the Cape Cod League.
Beck hit .307 last year - down from his .352 clip as a freshman - but showed an increase in power. He belted 11 doubles, three triple and a team-best five home runs while driving in 35 runs. He also stole six bases.
Beck is a potentially elite offensive presence who could continue the litany of outstanding hitters under Thomas. The junior also has the potential to be a very good outfielder. He has a cannon of an arm - and was clocked at speeds exceeding 94 mph during Scout Day this fall.
"He has a chance to be a good hitter in this conference and a good hitter for us," Thomas said. "He is coming off hip surgery, but he had a good fall. I look for him to have a good spring."
Junior-college transfer Brandon Lawrence has a good opportunity to win the starting spot in center field. He is a strong defensive player with a track record of offensive production at the junior college level.
At Blinn Junior College last year, Lawrence hit .387 with four home runs and 18 doubles.
"He has all the tools and he had a good fall," Thomas said. "It is just a matter of how quick he makes adjustments to the next level. He has the ability and the tools to do that. The quicker he makes adjustments to how teams pitch him, the quicker he will have success."
Matt Shortall is also ready to contend for playing time. He took a redshirt last year while sitting out after transferring from Tulane. He might be one of the most powerful hitters on the UTA roster. If he can harness that into more consistency, he could be a presence in the Mavericks lineup.
Philip Incaviglia started 46 games last year and will likely see time in the outfield again. His defensive range makes him a valuable asset. He is also a very good base runner, who stole 13 bases in 14 attempts last year.
Jake Pinchback deserved better than his .220 batting average last year, often watching line drives turn into hard outs in limited at-bats. He turned in a strong fall and could be in line for additional playing time.
Preston Morrow, another senior, hit .364 in limited at-bats last year.
There are several options to man this position for the Mavericks this season. Depending on Michael Guerra's health, he might be the most likely for the position. Guerra would be a major presence in the DH spot.
The other most likely option would be Matt Shortall because of his power.