Fresh faces abound on baseball team

By head coach Bill Kinneberg’s own admission, the pitching staff was the U baseball team’s Achilles’ heel last season and the primary reason behind the Utes’ fifth-place finish in the Mountain West Conference.

So it came as no surprise that pitching was Kinneberg’s primary concern this offseason as he overhauled his roster, putting emphasis on adding depth to his rotation.

Utah’s 2006 group features no less than 14 players who were not on last year’s roster. The new class includes mainly new recruits brought in from both the high school and junior college ranks but also features a few players who redshirted in 2005.

About half of those newcomers are pitchers, many of whom are expected to come in and contribute right away.

“The biggest weakness was our pitching staff last year. Now we feel, going into this season, that it really could be one of our bright spots,” Kinneberg said. “Six or seven guys have come in and really done a nice job, and we believe are going to be pretty good for us.”

Kinneberg has gotten a look at his new players over the past few weeks, in addition to the fall practices the team conducted.

Two of the Utes’ prize recruits are juniors Lucas Trinnaman and Eric King, both of whom went on LDS missions and played last season at Salt Lake Community College before transferring to the U.

Trinnaman and King are slated to start the team’s first two games of the season this Friday and Saturday when the team travels south to take on New Mexico State in a three-game set.

While Josh Cooper and Jason Price are expected to be the Friday and Saturday night starters for the team this season, Kinneberg said he wanted to get his new pitchers some playing time right away.

“You hope the J.C. guys make the assimilation (to Division-I) really quick,” Kinneberg said. “Naturally, you’re counting on them to do that. They should be able to do that. There’s not a whole lot of difference.”

King was 5-1 for SLCC last season with a 2.33 ERA, 47 strikeouts and just 12 walks, while Trinnaman saw action both in the starting rotation and the bullpen, compiling a 3-3 mark with 44 Ks. With that season under their belts, both are excited to get their Division-I careers under way.

“It’s not like I’m nervous. I’m excited, I’ve done it my whole life,” Trinnaman said. “I’m sure there’s a difference (between JUCO and D-I), but it’s the same game. Pitchers need to hit their spots and throw good pitches, and they’ll be successful.”

Both players should figure prominently into his staff this season, but Kinneberg says that the biggest difference of all may be the depth he now sees up and down the roster, with all the new pitchers the team has brought in.

“We feel like we have some depth now, and we have some options,” he said. “We may not see that right off the bat-these guys have to get orientated to Division-I baseball and so forth. We definitely have more of a chance of getting guys out this year than last year.”

As for the players themselves, they don’t expect too drastic a change as they take to the field as Utes for the first time.

“I think I’ve got a pretty good feel of what it’s going to be like,” King said. “The fall practices we had were pretty intense, we worked out as hard as any team could work out. It might take a game or two to see what it’s like, but I’ve got a pretty good idea.”

But Utah has more than just new pitchers on this year’s roster. The offense will also get an infusion of new blood, which the coaching staff believes can make up for the losses of graduated seniors Doug Beck and Trevor Eastman.

Erich Kemp, who earned first-team All-America honors at Palomar Junior College last season, is expected to figure prominently in the offensive and defensive outlook of this year’s group.

“Kemp’s going to be a good player for us,” Kinneberg said. “He adds nice stability to our defense, and he’s going to be a nice offensive player for us, too.”

True freshman Corey Shimada, a lefty from Murray High School, is going to get a chance to start in left field right away.

“It’s a privilege to be a freshman and being able to start at Division-1,” Shimada said. “It feels pretty good. It’s definitely a change from high school. The competition is definitely a lot better.”

Also expected to be in the mix for playing time are hurlers Jason Williams, a transfer from Yavapai College; 6-foot-10, 228-pound Rory James, from Pasco Hernando Community College; and freshman Brad DeVore, from Horizon High School in Scottsdale, Ariz.

For the newcomers to the Division-I ranks, a grace period to get acclimated to the heightened competition is par for the course, and Kinneberg expects as much over the first few weeks of this season-especially for the youngsters coming straight out of high school.

“(For) the high-school guys it takes a little bit. The game speeds up, and every player’s a good player,” Kinneberg said. “What you hope for them is that they start out being able to hang on and get through some of the rough times they’re going to have and not lose their confidence. Because it can be a tough stretch for a while.”

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