Provo • Right fielder Brock Hale believes every member of the 2019 BYU baseball team has his back this season.
The senior from Mesa, Ariz., isn’t sure he could say that last year when the Cougars were picked to defend their 2017 West Coast Conference title and make it back to the NCAA Tournament, but faltered mightily and finished with a disappointing 22-28 record and out of the four-team WCC tournament.
With Hale and other seniors such as infielders Brian Hsu and Casey Jacobsen, catcher Noah Hill, pitcher Jordan Wood and outfielder Keaton Kringlen leading the way, BYU is having one of its best seasons in years.
“The biggest reason for the turnaround is the camaraderie we have with each other this year,” Hale said last Friday after the Cougars downed Pepperdine 4-2 to clinch their third WCC series win. “Last year, we weren’t a cohesive group. Everyone on this team jells well together. It makes it a lot easier to go out on the field when you know everyone has your back and you are all willing to fight for each other. I think that’s the biggest difference this year.”
The Cougars are 24-9 overall and tied for second in the WCC race with a 10-5 league record, a game behind league-leading Loyola Marymount (22-13, 11-4). They step away from the WCC race this weekend, but still have an important three-game series at Washington (16-15) Thursday (7 p.m.), Friday (7 p.m.) and Saturday (2 p.m.).
The nonconference set is huge to their hopes for an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament if they don’t win the WCC tournament, because the Cougars’ RPI is 42.
BYU BASEBALL MILESTONES
• Infielder Jackson Cluff and outfielder Brock Hale have both earned National Player of the Week honors, the first time two BYU players have earned national honors in same year
• Collegiate Baseball ranked BYU No. 24 in the nation in its poll released on April 1, BYU’s first Top 25 ranking since 2016
• Coach Mike Littlewood picked up his 200th win at BYU when the Cougars downed St. Mary’s 5-3 on March 30 for their eighth-straight win
• BYU hit 13 homers in Provo in March, the most in a single month at home since it had 16 in 2005
“If we can go up there and win that series, our RPI could be really good,” said coach Mike Littlewood. “We are going to face their main [pitching] guys, and they will see our main guys. It should be a fun weekend.”
Littlewood said BYU’s RPI probably has to be in the 30s, and the Cougars probably have to win a game or two in the conference tournament, to get an at-large berth.
“But it is a crapshoot,” he said. “There have been teams in our league who didn’t win the tournament and were in the 30s and didn’t get in. You never know.”
Littlewood said BYU’s policy of not playing on Sundays “is detrimental” to getting into the NCAAs because teams in whatever sub-regional BYU is sent to have to move their pitching up a day for a Thursday-through-Saturday series. Many schools balk at doing that.
Regardless of their postseason aspirations, fun is a good way to describe this season, after last year’s showing. The Cougars were picked to finish sixth in the WCC, but Littlewood said in February that this team was going to exceed expectations.
“We felt like we had the talent,” he said. “Really, the key to this year’s success is leadership from our seniors, and then there are some juniors and even some freshmen that are leaders. The leadership has created a culture where they are expecting greatness and holding the younger guys accountable, and the younger guys are buying in. Everybody is on the same page.”
That wasn’t the case last year, Littlewood and Hale said.
That’s why Littlewood “cleaned house” by pushing 8-10 underclassmen out the door — some left willingly — and worked all offseason to change the culture in his program. He added 17 newcomers and three recently returned missionaries, and found a gem in new pitching coach Michael Bradshaw, who was Arizona’s assistant director of baseball operations from 2015-18 and before that a pitcher at Nevada.
“He’s been great,” Littlewood said. “He is very detail-oriented. He knows each pitcher individually. Every single day, every single pitcher has an individual throwing program that he holds them accountable to.”
Pleasant Grove product Easton Walker is 4-0 and has one of the best earned run averages in the country (0.82) , while fellow starters Justin Sterner (6-3) and Jordan Wood (4-1) have also been solid. Littlewood said reliever Reid McLaughlin (5-0, 1.54 ERA) “has been the most surprising guy on the entire team.” Drew Zimmerman, a right-hander from Lehi, has taken the closer role and excelled.
“Our pitching has been great,” said Hale, who has hit seven homers and driven in 28 runs. “They’ve given us hitters a lot of confidence to know that we can go out there and battle and battle and as long as we keep it close we know our pitchers are going to get it done.”
Offensively, Hsu leads the team with a .383 batting average, while sophomore infielder Jackson Cluff, from Meridian, Idaho, has returned from a church mission to Atlanta and made himself a prospect for June’s major league draft. Cluff is hitting .361 with 40 RBI.
“We have scouts at every game watching him,” Littlewood said. “I mean, he is probably a guy we won’t see back here next year.”