Provo • In coach Mike Littlewood’s estimation, the BYU baseball team missed getting an invitation to play in the NCAA Tournament last year by just one or two games.
That’s why games such as the ones the Cougars are playing in February are so important, and why the coach was disappointed to see his Cougars get swept (0-4) by Kansas at the Mariners/Padres Spring Training Complex in Peoria, Airz. recently.
Littlewood’s second season at the BYU helm didn’t start well, but he’s confident the Cougars can turn it around this week. They play a double-header against Texas A&M Corpus-Christi on Thursday before meeting No. 19 TCU on Friday and Texas-San Antonio on Saturday.
“These nonconference games early are really important to build our RPI,” Littlewood said. “There is no time to settle in and see where guys fit. We have to win games immediately.”
BYU went 32-21 last year, finished second in the regular season and advanced to the WCC tournament, where it lost twice to nationally ranked San Diego. A hoped-for bid to college baseball’s big dance never came.
Despite that, the WCC coaches have picked the Cougars to finish seventh this year, probably because BYU lost four starters who were taken in the 2013 Major League draft: Jacob Hannemann, Jaycob Brugman, Adam Law and Adam Miller.
“Other guys will step up,” Littlewood said. “Talent-wise, we are good to go. We don’t have many superstars, if any, but just a lot of good baseball players who are going to go out and compete.”
Since last fall, Littlewood and his staff have been trying to get an unlikely mixture of players to mesh. He’s got true freshmen from high school, returned missionaries who are sophomores because they played a season for former coach Vance Law, returned missionaries who are freshman and 10 players who have transferred from other programs, including five from Salt Lake Community College.
“We have so many different guys, from so many different backgrounds,” he said.
The foundation will be a pair of preseason all-conference picks, shortstop Hayden Nielsen and first baseman Brock Whitney. Right fielder Kelton Caldwell, an all-WCC pick in 2012, and third baseman Dillon Robertson are also back. Littlewood is excited about former Bingham High star Brennon Lund, who will be the starting-day center fielder and try to fill Hanneman’s shoes.
Lund has professional baseball potential with a cannon arm and 6.3 speed in the 60-yard dash.
Two weekend starters, Desmond Poulson and Jeff Barker, are back to anchor the pitching staff. Kolton Mahoney has returned from a church mission and will be in the starting rotation after serving as the closer his freshman season. Hayden Rogers, a left-hander from Phoenix, is also expect to get the ball this weekend.
James Lengal is ticketed to be the primary closer. Chunner Nyberg, Rhett Nelson, Michael Springer, Brandon Kinser and Arik Mack will also provide relief pitching.
BYU baseball season preview
• Coach Mike Littlewood enters his second season at the helm after going 32-21 in 2013.
• The Cougars are picked to finish seventh in the West Coast Conference after finishing second last year.
• BYU returns 17 lettermen, who will be joined by 17 newcomers, including 10 transfers.