Let’s get the ball rollin’

With last season’s 19-36 campaign now a distant memory, the revamped U baseball team is looking forward to writing a new chapter in its history.

The Utes welcome a glut of new players to the roster and a new opponent to the Mountain West ranks as they look to take a step forward in the 2006 season, which gets under way this weekend.

The addition of TCU makes the conference race even more competitive, and the Utes expect to be a part of that competition and improve upon last year’s fifth-place finish, which included a third-round loss to San Diego State in the double-elimination MWC Tournament.

“The one thing that I’m really excited about is our players have really worked extremely hard since September to get to this point,” said U head coach Bill Kinneberg, now in his second year back at the helm. He previously held the job for one year in 1996.

While both the Utes’ pitching and run production ranked near the bottom of the offense-heavy conference last season, they have reason to believe both areas will improve this season.

“We’ve really got our nucleus back, other than Doug Beck and Trevor Eastman. The meat of our order is kind of intact,” Kinneberg said.

That offensive core includes junior third baseman Jay Brossman, already a two-time all-conference selection who hit a team-high .377 last year with 51 RBI. Also returning are shortstop Ryan Khoury and outfielders Joe Mozeleski and John Welsh, who help make up a lineup that, at times, was one of the most explosive in the MWC last year.

“I think that with the guys we’ve got coming back, we should be equal to (last year) or even better,” Kinneberg said.

However, the absence of Beck-who led the team in RBIs in 2005-leaves a hole at second base, but that could be filled by sophomore Bret Baldwin, who missed almost all of last year but hit .296 during his first year in 2002.

Kinneberg said Baldwin and junior Tyler Kmetko will likely split time at second, while Adam Frank and T.J. Wise will share catching duties in place of the departed Eastman. Meanwhile, freshman Corey Shimada will get a chance to provide a spark for the Utes right away, having earned an early shot at a starting post in left field.

“I think we’re really going to surprise people this year,” freshman hurler Lucas Tinnaman said. “We have great guys at every position. There are no holes in our lineup or our defense.”

But what Kinneberg believes could set this year’s Utes apart from 2005’s is the overhauled pitching staff, which includes seven new faces and senior Josh Cooper, a full-time relief pitcher at the start of last season who came on strong as a starter down the stretch and earned preseason all-MWC honors. Also back is southpaw Jason Price, who has led the club in innings pitched in each of the last two seasons.

“I’m excited about our pitching. The difference between this club and last year’s club is that we have a chance to be OK on the mound,” Kinneberg said. “With Cooper and Price back, the addition of those other six has really strengthened our staff.”

Still, Kinneberg accepts that it might take awhile for the team to find the consistency it lacked for much of last season.

“Beginning of the season, yeah, I can sure say that,” he said. “Pitching in college baseball is tough, and pitching in this altitude is tough. There are a lot of runs scored (in the MWC).”

While Cooper will not start this weekend, he is expected to be the team’s Friday night starter this year, with Price going on Saturday nights. Kinneberg said that Cooper is still working himself back into game shape.

Because of the winter weather in Utah that often lasts into the spring, the Utes are forced to begin the season with an extended road trip every year. That is once again the case, as the team will be on the road for six straight weeks to open up the season before finally hosting a series at Franklin Covey Field in mid-March.

“The only scary thing for me right now is that we have not been outside since November,” Kinneberg said. “Generally we have a day or two that we can get outside and the outfielders can see some balls off the bat?but we haven’t been able to do that this winter.”

Though the Utes won’t play at home this season until March 17 against Portland, the team’s early season road trips will be a thing of the past, come 2008. Starting then, the MWC has a “uniform start date” for baseball, which will be the last weekend in February. Teams will not be able to start practice until Feb. 1.

[email protected]