Best BYU pitching staff since 1982 has Cougar baseball team primed for some rare postseason success

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune l-r Brigham Young University pitchers Jordan Wood, Easton Walker and Justin Sterner are starting pitchers on one of the best pitching staffs in school history. They posed for this photo before the Cougars hosted San Francisco on May 9, 2019.

Provo • Senior right-hander Jordan Wood has always planned to attend medical school when he exhausts his eligibility pitching for the BYU baseball team.

But those plans might have to be shelved for awhile.

Wood has pitched so well this season for the No. 24-ranked Cougars that professional baseball scouts are starting to pay a little attention, despite the 24-year-old returned missionary’s age.

“The thing I know about the draft is they are always looking for younger guys, but here’s a guy who has been all-conference. He throws 91 to 94 [miles per hour], with four really good pitches and an 85 [mph] slider,” said new BYU pitching coach Michael Bradshaw. “He has the repertoire to be drafted, no question.”

Wood isn’t the only pitcher with a bright future on the BYU staff, which coach Mike Littlewood says is one of the best in school history. Pitching is a big reason why the Cougars (34-14) are closing in on a possible West Coast Conference championship and potential NCAA tournament at-large berth (if they don’t win the conference tournament title).

BYU, with a 32 RPI after dumping Utah 10-3 on Tuesday night, closes out the regular season this weekend with a three-game series at Santa Clara and can clinch the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament next week with a sweep of the Broncos.

“I am not a stats guy, but just subjectively, looking at them, they are pretty good,” Littlewood said of his pitchers. “They keep us in every game. It makes it so our offense doesn’t have to put up 8-10 runs a game, like we did in 2017 with our regional team.”

According to BYU sports information, the staff’s combined earned run average of 3.66 is the best team mark in 37 years. The 1982 staff posted a 3.61 ERA.

A week ago, the staff’s ERA was 3.51 — which was the best since 1969, when official records started being kept — but it gave up 18 earned runs to San Francisco in a three-game series last weekend in high-altitude Provo.

The Cougars’ 4.22 runs allowed per game, 7.89 strikeouts per game and .256 opposing team batting average are each the best marks in program history over the last 40 seasons.

“It is an awesome staff, top to bottom, starter to reliever,” said senior catcher Noah Hill. “There’s not a guy on this staff that we don’t trust to come in and get outs for us.”

Littlewood correctly points out that the Cougars are “getting it done in all areas” and have outstanding hitters such as Brock Hale, Jackson Cluff and Mitch McIntyre and stellar defenders such as Brian Hsu, Casey Jacobsen, Hill and Carson Mathews. But pitching is the most noticeable difference from last year, when BYU went 22-28.

Wood (4.36 ERA) is the “Thursday” starter, the ace, while sophomores Easton Walker (1.76) and Justin Sterner (3.09) have been solid on Fridays and Saturday, particularly Walker, who has a 6-1 record.

Former Carbon High star Jarod Lessar (4.53) has been the usual midweek starter, while freshman Reid McLaughlin has been a “pleasant surprise,” according to Littlewood, out of the bullpen. Senior Blake Inouye and sophomore Drew Zimmerman, the stopper, have also excelled as relievers.

The starters have an ERA of 4.25 and the relievers have an ERA of 3.05.

Wood, Walker and Littlewood recently said that Bradshaw, a former pitcher at Nevada who spent the last three seasons at Arizona, has made all the difference.

“First of all, I am lucky because I came into a really good situation with pitchers that make me look good,” Bradshaw said. “From the first day, they have trusted me in everything I have thrown at them, and really bought into everything.”

Bradshaw was part of two NCAA Tournament runs with the Wildcats, including a runner-up finish in 2016. He said BYU’s staff can “absolutely” match up with the talent he saw on a regular basis in the Pac-12.

“This staff has as much talent as any pitching staff we had down there,” he said. “One thing you will see in the Power 5s, as opposed to the mid-majors, is just the depth of really high-talent arms. But as far as pitching goes, we have a high number of guys who can pitch well, and that’s all you are really looking for.”

Littlewood said Lessar, a USU-Eastern transfer, and Sterner, who recently returned from a church mission to Samoa, will have professional pitching opportunities. Walker “is a little bit different than your normal starting college pitcher,” Littlewood said, but makes up for his lack of velocity by mixing four pitches well and having pinpoint accuracy. He’s issued only 13 walks in 66 innings.

“We take a lot of pride in what we’ve done,” Wood said. “But we know there’s a lot more work to do.”

So medical school might have to wait.


Weekend starters

• Jordan Wood, Sr., RHP — 4.36 ERA , 5-2 record, 76.1 innings, 62 strikeouts

• Easton Walker, So., RHP — 1.76 ERA 6-1 record, 66.1 innings 41 strikeouts

• Justin Sterner, So., RHP — 3.09 ERA 8-3 record, 64.0 innings 65 strikeouts

Midweek starter

• Jarod Lessar, Jr., RHP — 4.53 ERA, 3-2 record, 45.2 innings, 42 strikeouts

Key relievers

• Reid McLaughlin, Fr., RHP — 2.89 ERA 6-1 record, 46.2 innings, 42 strikeouts

• Blake Inouye, Sr., RHP — 3.82 ERA , 2-1 record, 35.1 innings, 41 strikeouts

• Drew Zimmerman, So., RHP — 4.11 ERA, 1-2 record, 35 innings, 37 strikeouts