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Utah baseball: Starting with BYU, Utes look to get back to winning

First Published      Last Updated Mar 27 2017 05:03 pm


Describing Utah’s upcoming game with BYU on Tuesday night, baseball coach Bill Kinneberg used the term "necessary evil."

OK, so more context is required.

Midweek games during conference play are one of the banes of college baseball. Utah (10-11, 1-5) is preparing for a weekend series hosting Oregon (15-6, 4-2) but first must contend with the geographic rival Cougars (10-11, 1-2) at Smith’s Ballpark at 6 p.m. on Tuesday.

So for both teams, that likely means not using their top three starters on Tuesday, meaning more runs. They’ll also be more likely to rest key contributors with nagging injuries, or be conservative with bullpen staff.

If it’s not the best of college baseball, what purpose do these games serve exactly?

Well, Kinneberg explained, both BYU and Utah are in the tenuous position of looking to bolster their non-conference records for RPI, which is a huge factor in earning an NCAA regional berth. Utah can do it the hard way as it did last year, by winning the Pac-12 despite a 7-18 non-conference record (and an overall losing record), but Kinneberg wants to — pardon the pun — cover all his bases.

"They’re not huge games for us as far as the real impact of the season, but when you really put it down, it’s the RPI and the amount of wins you can get," Kinneberg said. "If you’re in the top 6 and have a good non-conference records, you’re going to get into NCAA regionals, and that’s our goal."

Utah comes in needing a boost in the winning category: The team has lost 8 of its last 9 games, getting a critical victory at Stanford last weekend but tied in the back of the Pac-12 after its first two conference series.

Kinneberg identified two areas where Utah is falling short: the bullpen, and hitting with runners in scoring position. Twice at Washington, the Utes ended an inning with bases loaded. While this weekend’s visit to Stanford featured a virtuoso performance from Jayson Rose in a 4-0 win, other games were woefully short in the offensive category.

Kinneberg said he wants to get 5- and 6-hole hitters Josh Rose and Hunter Simmons on a roll. Both have game-changing power at the plate when they’re putting bat to ball.

It was especially disappointing in recent weeks to see games get away in late innings — an area where Utah excelled last year.

"That’s something we take pride in, and that’s something that has to change for us," Kinneberg said. "In that 7th, 8th, 9th inning we need to capitalize."

While Utah’s starter for BYU, Jacob Rebar, is the least experienced starter on the mound for Utah, Kinneberg said it’s vital for the freshman righty to get innings in. The Utes believe he’s a potential future star. With Jayson Rose a likely MLB Draft pick after this season, Utah wants Rebar to grow into a staff ace.

"We need to get Jacob as much time as we can," Kinneberg said. "We feel like he has a chance to be a special pitcher here."

Utah’s recent series with BYU has been an odd one. The Utes went 1-2 against the Cougars last year, with each game being decided by at least six runs. In a normal week, Kinneberg might not place so much weight on the game.

But Utah can’t be choosy about wins at this point: They need all they can get.

"I guess I would call it a necessary evil," he said. "We need to play those games, and they’re important. It’s vital for them and for us that we play to the best of our ability and try to win these games."

kgoon@sltrib.com
Twitter: @kylegoon




 

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