The grass is greener?

The ground may still be covered in snow in Salt Lake City, but the boys of summer will be back on the field this weekend.

The U baseball team, which had a nine-game improvement last year to finish right at the .500 mark (28-28), opens up its 2007 season on the road this weekend against Santa Clara. The improvement from the Utes’ 2005 squad to last year’s group was substantial and head coach Bill Kinneberg-in his third year since returning to the program’s helm-thinks this team is even better from top to bottom, though whether that translates into a run toward the MWC’s upper echelon remains to be seen.

“You never know if you’re going to make improvement that way, as far as wins and losses go?I do know that we have a better team than last year,” Kinneberg said. “We just have to settle into our roles, get guys playing well. The wins will take care of themselves.”

The team has just completed its third week of practice at the Spence Eccles Field House, and Kinneberg said he’s gotten what he wants from his players thus far. They’re in shape, they’re focused and for the most part, they’re healthy.

The only significant setback, health-wise, has been that of sophomore hurler Brad DeVore, who is expected to be a major part of the team’s pitching rotation but is suffering through a minor bout with tendonitis in his throwing elbow.

DeVore, who is projected to figure into the starting rotation at some point, expects to throw “a couple innings” on Saturday, according to coach Kinneberg.

A somewhat new face, and the man who will start the Utes’ season opener Friday afternoon, is senior Chad Cullers. The 6-foot-3 former Lamar Community College standout had his inaugural season at the U cut short in 2005, and then missed all of last season because of injury.

“This is his third year now, and he hasn’t been healthy,” Kinneberg said of his day-one starter. “He’s finally healthy (and) he’s throwing great.”

As expected, fellow seniors Lucas Trinnaman and Eric King will start on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, and Kinneberg hopes to get a good look at all of his pitchers as he and his players try to solidify their roles.

“We’ve kind of got this weekend scripted out. Guys know where they’re gonna pitch, we’ve got pitch counts for everybody,” he said. “I think the key to our pitching staff is that one through 13 is pretty good. At least at this point, we feel like we have a whole lot of depth.”

That was not necessarily the case late last season, as the Utes’ bullpen crumbled down the stretch, repeatedly blowing big leads. In their MWC tournament showdown with BYU, the Utes jumped out to a 7-0 lead but ended up falling 9-8, thanks in large part to the Cougars’ five-run ninth inning.

The problem last year, Kinneberg said, is that his players overextended themselves over the course of the season. There simply weren’t enough arms to go around.

“I think what happened last year is we got some guys worn out. We had a couple injuries, guys didn’t perform well and we had six or seven guys playing four games a week,” he said. “It’s tough on seven or eight guys.”

The Utes’ opponent this weekend is the Santa Clara Broncos, who opened their season last weekend against Hawaii, dropping two before winning the weekend finale. First pitch Friday is set for 6 p.m. PST.