Seeing the light of day

It wasn’t the new faces peppering the top of the lineup. It wasn’t shaking off the rust after a long winter. And it certainly wasn’t the bullpen, which shined all weekend.

No, the problem for the U baseball team last week against Santa Clara was more circumstantial than anything else.

“It was depth perception,” sophomore shortstop Corey Shimada said.

Every year, the Utes are in the same unfortunate spot as other winter schools, in that practically their entire preseason training schedule has to take place indoors. In the three weeks prior to their season opener against the Broncos last Friday, the Utes practiced in the Spence Eccles Field House, which helps them get all the requisite practice in when the weather gets in the way-which, in Salt Lake City in February, it usually does.

By all accounts, the facility-used by most of the varsity teams on campus at some point during the year-is a hugely valuable asset. U head baseball coach Bill Kinneberg says his team is much better off for it. Still, the football-field-size dimensions are a far cry from playing on an actual baseball diamond in the great outdoors. In addition to fielding ground balls off FieldTurf rather than natural grass, the depth perception is a major adjustment when the team finally does take the field.

“It’s an adjustment for the eyes and the body,” Kinneberg said. His Utes were able to get one day of outdoor practice in before taking on Santa Clara for a three-game set (the result of which was Ute losses), but the change clearly had an impact.

Kinneberg said he “expected some of that” going into his team’s opening series, but admitted, “I still thought we’d execute a little better than we did.” In three games, the team managed just seven runs despite 26 hits.

Shimada, who went 1-for-11 in the series, said he and his teammates clearly adjusted over the course of the weekend. “It was better on Sunday,” the sophomore said. “We were seeing the ball a lot better and we’d sorta gotten used to it.”

They certainly weren’t seeing the ball last Friday, as they were shutout 8-0. But as Shimada said, they settled down as the weekend wore on, dropping each of the final two games of the series by one run. Once they were used to the sunshine rather than the dimmed-down lighting and static atmosphere of the practice field, it was basically back to normal.

Of course, once the team returned home, it was back indoors?for the most part, at least. Returning to Salt Lake City for an uncharacteristically warm February week, the Utes got a chance to spend a few hours practicing outdoors at the nearby McCarthy Field, where the football team usually practices. Now, the Utes will be back on the road and back in the sun this weekend-and they expect their eyes to adjust a little quicker now that they have three games under their collective belt.

The Utes will take pretty much the same approach this weekend as they did last weekend. Struggles like the ones they experienced last weekend are nothing to get too worried about this early in the year, according to coach Kinneberg.

“I’ve always said it takes about 10 games to settle in,” Kinneberg said. “We’ve just got to settle in at some positions. The positive is, our pitching (last week) was fabulous; it was great.”

He will send his same rotation this weekend, with Chad Cullers starting Friday, Lucas Trinnaman taking the hill Saturday and Eric King in the weekend finale Sunday. The Utes expect to use about 10 pitchers over the course of the weekend. One player who likely won’t be making any appearances on the mound is Brad DeVore, who pitched 2.2 innings of nearly perfect ball but is still nursing some minor tendonitis in his throwing elbow. Kinneberg said that he and his coaches are going to “hold him back” for a week or two, just to make sure DeVore’s health is preserved for the rest of the season.

The Utes’ opponent this weekend is New Mexico State, which dropped two of three games during its opening series last week against Northern Colorado. The Aggies were 19-36 last season-incidentally, the same mark the Utes had two seasons ago before improving into a .500 ballclub (28-28) last year.

The Aggies are breaking in a lot of new blood this year. Twenty new faces joined the 2007 roster, including nine freshmen. While a lot of the pitching staff remains intact, including returning No. 1 starter Jason Conner, the team lost most of its offense from a year ago, including Luke Hopkings, a .403 hitter who drove in a team-high 65 runs in 2006.

Corey Shimada has taken over as the Utes’ starting shortstop this season.