Utah’s pitching on solid ground

By Marco Villano, Staff Writer

As the snow continues to linger outside, it won’t stop the Utah baseball team from beginning Mountain West Conference play today against BYU.

Although it’s a bit early for conference play to start8212;compared to previous seasons8212;the Utes will play their first home game of the season against a talented and rolling Cougars team at Franklin Covey Field. The final two games of the series will be played in Provo on Friday and Saturday.

“It seems like it’s crept on us real quickly,” said head coach Bill Kinneberg. “I’d like another week to prepare, but everyone is on the same boat. We all started on the same day, so nobody has an advantage or disadvantage.”

BYU has won five straight games, with wins over Southern Utah (8-3) and Wichita State (3-1).

Utah knows this game will be a tough way to open up MWC play. The Utes and the Cougars met in five games last year, with the Utes taking three of five against their rivals.

“I heard they have a lot of new guys coming in,” said Utah second baseman Corey Shimada. “They’re going to be a lot better than they were last year, so it’s going to be a good game.”

The Utes are coming off a four-game set in which they went 2-2 with wins over Sam Houston State and No. 6 Texas A&M Aggies. The highlight of the series was a 2-0, two-hit shutout victory by pitcher Jordan Whatcott, who is in his first year at the U. Whatcott spent the past two seasons at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix.

For the most part, Utah’s starting pitching has been sharp so far.

Brian Budrow is 2-0 with a 4.75 ERA and 18 strikeouts, which makes him tied for second in the conference. Andrew Wilding is 0-2 on the season, but has an ERA of 4.00, which puts him at No. 13 in the conference. Bryn Card is the fourth pitcher in the rotation and has picked up a win in two outings. Card’s opposition’s batting average is .222 when he’s on the bump, which puts him at fourth in the conference.

Whatcott and Budrow are stealing the headlines in the early season, but Kinneberg is impressed with the rotation as a whole.

“Our starting pitching has been solid for us,” Kinneberg said. “We need to show up on some things in relief, but overall I’ve been very happy.”

A few games have fallen out of reach because of Utah’s bullpen so far this season.

Robert Chimpky and Stephen Streich have been Utah’s two go-to relievers. Chimpky had an opportunity to close out another huge upset against Texas A&M in Utah’s last outing. After picking up the save in Whatcott’s stellar 2-0 win, Chimpky tightened up in the final and walked in the game-winning run for the Aggies, 12-11. The senior from Livermore, Calif., leads the Utes with two saves in seven appearances.

Streich has seen a lot of action at middle relief this season and has been the set-up guy for Chimpky. The sophomore from Phoenix has pitched seven innings with a 1.29 ERA along with eight strikeouts.

One of the prime reasons the staff has been impressive so far this year is the defense of the guys behind them.

Utah had all of its infield starters return for 2009, and so far, it’s paid dividends.

“It’s definitely been a bonus,” Whatcott said. “With (Michael) Beltran and Shimada up the middle, we got great speed and capability of turning a double play. (Nick) Kuroczko at third base has a great arm as well and (Austin) Jones picks it really well at first base. Getting ground balls is nice ’cause you know these guys are going to make plays behind you.”

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Chronicle File Photo

– U baseball player Greg Krause has played a critical role in solidifying the Utes? starting pitching. The team plays BYU today at 3 p.m. at Franklin Covey Field.