Asked what he learned during his freshman season at Nevada, pitcher Owen Sharts didn’t hold back.
“I mean, I learned how to lose,” Sharts said. “That’s for sure.”
Sharts said it was a bit of a laugh, but he also knew it was true. Sharts entered last season with high aspirations. He was a top-125 prospect in the 2018 MLB draft, as ranked by ESPN, FanGraphs and MLB.com, but opted for college over turning pro. A star at every level prior to college, Sharts' freshman season didn’t turn out as many expected.
After a stellar debut – he tossed seven shutout innings, allowing just three hits, in his first college start – there were struggles. Lots of them. Sharts finished the season 3-8 with a 5.96 ERA and nearly walked as many batters (35) as he struck out (40). That was a far cry from his senior season of high school when he went 7-1 with a 1.05 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 53 innings while limiting batters to a .173 average.
“It wasn’t easy,” Sharts said of his freshman season. “But I have a great support group and a lot of good teammates and my coaches never gave up on me. Most of all it was a learning experience. It’s wasted if I can’t come out here and use that experience to better myself and my teammates this year.”
While he didn’t have the freshman season he envisioned, Sharts did earn the respect of his teammates. He still took the ball every weekend and battled without skipping a start even when the results weren’t always great.
“They always say, ‘When you face adversity, your true character shows,’ and I think he earned everyone’s respect on this team the way he battled through the season and battled through the ups and downs,” Nevada’s two-time All-Mountain West honoree Josh Zamora said. “He woke up with the same, ‘Let’s get after it, let’s be successful today’ mentality.”
Sharts is being counted on to help anchor a Nevada pitching staff that lost its ace, Ryan Anderson, to the draft (he was a 12th-round pick of the New York Yankees). Sharts and Jake Jackson, another talented pitcher who struggled last season, are vying for the coveted role of Friday starter.
“Everybody wants that job,” Sharts said. “If you don’t want that job, then I don’t know what you’re working for. It’s up for Coach (T.J. Bruce) to decide. Me and Jake have done a pretty good job competing all fall and into the spring, and it’s just been fun piggy-backing off each other and learning from each other. Whatever Coach decides, that’s what it is, but if it’s me or Jake we’re going to be fine.”
After his uneven rookie season, Sharts played in the prestigious Cape Cod League, which is rare for somebody coming off his freshman season of college. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound righty had one rough start, allowing nine runs in two innings, but gave up just one earned run in his other 16.2 innings pitched. Even with the rough outing, Sharts posted a 4.82 ERA against elite competition before being shut down to get ready for his sophomore season with the Wolf Pack.
“Getting a break from Reno and getting to go out and learn from some new people and learn from some different guys across the country was a unique experience,” Sharts said. “I’m really grateful for the opportunity I got to meet those people and expand my horizons and come back with a new mindset ready to pitch.”
Sharts also will work with a new pitching coach at Nevada. Troy Buckley slides into the role in 2020 after being Long Beach State’s head coach from 2011-19. Bruce, who played for and coached alongside Buckley with the Dirtbags, is excited about the partnership of the talented Sharts and the veteran Buckley.
“I think we have the best pitching coach in the country, bar none,” Bruce said. “I’d argue that with anybody. He’s brings experience, but I think he has the ability to connect with kids and with people.”
Sharts started working with Buckley as soon as the pitching coach was hired in July and has made some tweaks he thinks will pay off this season.
“As soon as he got hired, we met up and started talking and started the revamp process,” Sharts said. “He got me back on track. It’s really just getting back to who I was when I was successful. He’s done a great job of that and letting me do my own thing but also intervening. I like the flow and the rhythm that we have going right now.”
If Nevada is going to compete for a Mountain West championship and return to an NCAA Regional for the first time since 2000, Sharts will likely have to lead the way on the mound. His potential remains immense, and if he pitches to that potential the Wolf Pack could have on the best pitchers on the West Coast. One of the reasons Sharts delayed a pro career to pitch for Nevada was to get the team back to the NCAA Tournament. That remains atop his to-do list.
“It’d be pretty special,” Sharts said of playing in an NCAA Regional. “I think it’s be pretty special for everybody here, every player on this roster, all of the coaches on this staff and it’s the ultimate goal for us. Looking on my past and my baseball heritage, it would mean a lot to me to step foot in the postseason.”
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.