Utah baseball: Utes make progress in constructing a winner
The uprooted dirt. The construction equipment. The general controlled mayhem on Utah's campus. Much of that was reserved for the supercross races that invaded the hill this past weekend.
A few feet away, next to a sparkling practice field and new metal stands, is a different kind of project, one that qualifies as controlled mayhem in its own right.
The Utah baseball team casually strolls out for batting practice, bullpen sessions and last-minute workouts before a weekend series. Coach Bill Kinneberg already has his practice face on, a look of business written across his brow. Mitch Watrous and Cody Scaggari casually hold a conversation with each other.
This is the calm before the mayhem. Like with most of the major Utah sports, year one in the Pac-12 was a difficult one for baseball in 2012, as the Utes won 14 games total last season. This spring has been different. Utah's made a leap simply by being more competitive. The Utes are already 16-23 with a month remaining. They have lost 10 of their past 12 games, but many of those have been close affairs.
They are a confident bunch. And a young one at that.
"We definitely feel that we've taken a step this year, and we feel like we can continue to build on what we've started," Watrous said. "The guys on this team all root for one another. We see the progress that we've made and it's a good thing. We just want to kind of take everything one step at a time. But we all feel like we're going to be a good team."
Utah's doing it with youth. The Utes have just six seniors on the team. One former Spanish Fork star Brock Duke had Tommy John surgery this season and is expected to be back next year. They are doing it with local guys. From Watrous, to the Carroll twins, to Duke, to Tanner Banks, to Trey Nielsen, Utah has a virtual list of past in-state high school stars.
For Kinneberg, the goal has been to build the program inside-out. Competing with BYU fiercely on the recruiting trail for the same guys, the Utes have finally begun to win some of those battles. Getting Duke was key. The Carrolls out of Taylorsville have showed significant promise. People like Luke West out of Juan Diego and Lars Lofgren from Skyline have done much to bolster the pitching staff.
"It's no secret what we are trying to do," Kinneberg said. "We want to have a lot of guys on the team from the local schools. It's good for the school and good for the program. We want to have the best players in the state on the team and then get as much good talent as we can out of state. That's how you build a good program."
For all of the positives, there is still a lot of work to do. Utah is last in the Pac-12 at 5-16. And with all of the youth on hand, learning how to win is going to take some time. The Utes lost a pair of games at Arizona by a combined two runs. They dropped a 1-0 decision at Oregon State. On Friday, Arizona State rallied in the final innings to beat Utah 5-4.
For the Utes, this season has been defined by being competitive, but not quite climbing the mountain. The next step is turning close games into wins.
"The biggest adjustment has been to the competition level that we see every single time out," Nielsen said. "That's the biggest thing. There are so many good programs in the Pac-12. It's high-level baseball every night, and that's something that we've had to get used to."
A slugger out of Skyline, Nielsen's had a good offensive year. He leads Utah with 20 RBIs, 11 doubles and 15 extra base-hits. Still, his .242 batting average could use improvement. He was drafted out of high school and is deciding whether to return for his senior season. Watrous, a sophomore, has a 3-2 record. Freshman Dalton Carroll was thrown into the fire early with eight starts.
If Nielsen returns and Duke comes back healthy, Utah can set itself up for a potentially good 2014. The Utes will be a year older. Kinneberg thinks Dallas Carroll has the tools to be a bona fide star, and all of the young players will have the opportunity to mature as they head to year three of the Pac-12.
There was some hope that Utah could sneak into the postseason. But a sweep at the hands of ASU this year puts the Utes' hopes in dire straits. Still, this year has been a step forward.
Another solid recruiting class will add depth next season, and the experience will come.
For Utah, the construction continues.
A closer look
• Twenty-one players hail from the state of Utah
• Utah is 16-23 this year; the program won 14 games all of last season
• The Utes are in their second season of Pac-12 competition
• Pitcher Dalton Carroll, a freshman from Taylorsville, is tied for the team lead in starts (eight) and wins (three)
• Junior Cory Hunt leads the team with a .286 batting average
• Utah will face nationally ranked Oregon in the final series of the season