The Nevada baseball team’s 2020 season opens Friday with a four-game set at Portland, and the Wolf Pack kicks off its campaign with plenty of reason for optimism despite also having some major questions it must answer.
Nevada returns the majority of its starting position players from last year and two of its three weekend starters and was picked to finish third out of eight Mountain West teams in the preseason poll. But Nevada hasn’t reached an NCAA Regional since 2000 and has been woeful in conference tournaments in its history, failing to win any of the 17 it has competed in while going 24-34 in those events.
Can Nevada change history and get to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 seasons? The Wolf Pack begins that quest this week. Here is a breakdown of the team heading into T.J. Bruce’s fifth season.
Four of Nevada’s opponents this season made an NCAA Regional in 2019, including Michigan, Stanford, Sacramento State and Fresno State. Michigan and Stanford each made it to a Super Regional, while the Wolverines came one win away against Vanderbilt from winning the College World Series. Nevada also plays Oregon and Utah, both from the Pac-12, and hasn’t shied away from scheduling tough.
“Our schedules continue to be strong,” Bruce said. “We’re not a program that’s going to continue to chase wins. We’re going to go out and play the best teams that we can play. We’re going to go on the road, and to win long term you have to be able to win on the road. You put Oregon on the road, you bring in Wichita State for a three-team tournament, you go to Michigan, the national championship runner-up. You go to Utah, which has been a Pac-12 winner in 2016. We’ll play everybody.”
The MW, which added Boise State this season, has shifted from a 30-game conference schedule to 21 games. Four of Nevada’s seven MW series are on the road, so the Wolf Pack must be good away from home to win its conference.
Who they lost
Nevada lost five six pitchers in Ryan Anderson (drafted by the Yankees), Grant Ford (draft by the Pirates), Dalton Gomez (graduation), Bradley Bonnenfant (graduation), Cooper Powell (graduation) and Tyler Smith (left team). Those six combined for 285 above-average innings. That’s 56.8 percent of Nevada’s innings last season.
Among position players, the Wolf Pack lost All-MW outfielder Weston Hatten as well as middle infielders Nick Seamons and Keaton Smith and utility player Daniel Perry. Also gone is former all-conference catch Kaleb Foster. Prized recruit Julian Boyd, a one-time MLB draftee, is still with the Wolf Pack but won't compete this season.
Who they added
With some departed seniors as well as a number of transfers, the Wolf Pack added 19 players in the offseason, including 13 junior-college transfers. Also joining the team is Vanderbilt transfer Kiambu Fentress, a speedy outfielder who played for the national champs last season. Among those to watch are Blane Abeyta, a junior-college transfer who can hit the mid-90s and is a potential replacement for Ford at closer, and Brady Hormel, a freshman from Fresno who will compete for the starting job at second base.
Bruce expects the influx of junior-college additions to make an immediate impact.
“A lot of us have to go the junior-college ranks for one reason or another,” Bruce said. “The level of play is sped up from the high school level, and there will be a little bit of a speed up from JC to here, but I think in terms of playing as many games as they have, you’re seeing a lot of talent in those JCs.”
The Wolf Pack returns a strong infield led by two-time All-MW honoree Josh Zamora, who played in the Cape Cod League in the summer. Zamora, a third baseman, hit .320 with a .892 OPS for Nevada in 2019. Also back is slugging first baseman Dillan Shrum, who hit 10 home runs in an injury-shortened 2019 campaign. Wyatt Tilley (.205) and Tyler Bosetti (.293) will compete for playing time in the middle of the diamond with the aforementioned Hormel also in the mix. Nevada has experience at catcher with the return of Marco Valenzuela (.215) and Matt Clayton (.292), who split the starting duties in 2019.
Jaylon McLaughlin, who led Nevada in batting average last season, returned for his senior year after being a late-round draft pick. McLaughlin was the only Wolf Pack player to earn first-team All-MW honors last season after hitting .339 with 25 steals playing in center field. Fentress should figure into the starting mix thanks to his defense and base running. Competition for playing time in the outfield will be strong and include Otis Statum Jr., a one-time MLB draft pick, and JuCo transfer Anthony Flores looking for starts. Nevada’s outfield is less proven than the Wolf Pack’s infield.
The pitching staff
Nevada lost Anderson, its Friday starter, and Ford, its closer, but returns two starters from 2019 in Owen Sharts and Jake Jackson. Neither had good seasons last year – they posted ERAs of 5.96 and 7.36, respectively – but they have a lot of potential. Sharts was a top prospect coming out of high school and Jackson was a freshman All-American at Nevada. The Wolf Pack will need them to take a step forward to stabilize a staff that is young. Shane Gustafson (3.23 ERA in 2019), who largely pitched in relief last season, also will look for a spot in the starting rotation. Finding four quality starters will be an early-season goal for the Wolf Pack.
The bullpen will largely be a rebuild with Ford, Bonnenfant and Powell gone and Gustafson potentially moving to the rotation. Those four led Nevada in appearances in 2019. Guiding the staff will be new pitching coach Troy Buckley, the former head coach at Long Beach State.
“He’s incredibly smart,” Valenzuela said of Buckley. “He was obviously around the big leagues and the pros for a really long time. There’s a lot more information that we haven’t heard before, which is really nice to kind of develop into my game but especially how knowledgeable he is, he's been a really big piece.”
Nevada was picked third out of eight teams in the preseason MW poll while getting two first-place votes. The Wolf Pack’s position players are more proven and experienced than its pitching staff, so replacing some major holes on the mound will be required to compete for a championship. Nevada has a tough enough non-conference schedule to compete for an NCAA Regional at-large spot if it plays well out of the gate, but the MW has produced just one NCAA Tournament team in the last five seasons, so things should come down to the conference tournament, which will be held in San Diego from May 21-24.
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.