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Remember that time Boise State was playing baseball in the Mountain West Conference for a hot minute? As quickly as the Broncos brought baseball back and got off to a strong start in their return season, resurrecting the program after a 40-year hiatus, the school dropped the sport due to pandemic budget shortfalls.
That wasn’t the only thing affected by the pandemic. With the conference dropping back down to seven teams, it is returning to the double round-robin format with every team playing home and away series against every other conference foe. The Mountain West will not have a conference tournament this season. It has never made much sense for every team to play full home and away series against one another over three months and then have one weekend double-elimination tournament decide the conference’s automatic regional qualifier. One other change for the Mountain West this year will be series played over two days. Teams will play a doubleheader on Saturdays with a single game on Sundays.
Something the conference hopes to change is not having a super regional representative since TCU’s final year in the conference in 2012. Fresno State and San Jose State are the only current conference members that have advanced beyond the regional round and that was while they were representing the WAC. Air Force hasn’t been in the NCAA tournament since 1969. San Diego State hasn’t won more than one game in the postseason since 1990. Nevada is looking for its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2000. San Jose State made the College World Series in 2000, but its last regional was 2002. UNLV has been in only one regional since 2005. New Mexico made four straight postseason appearances from 2010-13 but just one since.
*Teams are listed in order of projected finish
|San Diego State||10-6|
|San Jose State||5-12|
Projected regional teams (1): San Diego State
Player of the year: Zach Presno, C, Fresno State
Pitcher of the year: Troy Melton, RHP, San Diego State
Freshman of the year: Paul Skenes, C/RHP, Air Force
Projected regional teams
San Diego State
SDSU is looking for its sixth regional appearance since 2013. It has stepped in to become the conference frontrunner after TCU left the conference following the 2012 season. The Aztecs haven’t missed back-to-back postseasons since. They are trying to regain their place atop the conference after Fresno State won the regular season and conference tournament in 2019. The Aztecs were the only Mountain West team to lose players in the MLB Draft, but they return a veteran and deep team with potentially their best pitching staff under seventh-year head coach Mark Martinez. That starts with 6’4” right-hander Troy Melton. The third-year sophomore is No. 79 on our top 100 prospects list and one of the youngest draft-eligible Division I players. He was off to a strong start last year in his first season in the weekend rotation, going 3-1, 3.22 with 26 strikeouts in 22.1 innings. He held opponents to a .192 average and had wins over Coastal Carolina, Oregon State and Nebraska. Melton has a 93-96 mph fastball with a pair of plus offspeed offerings. He’ll be followed in the rotation by Kohl Simas (0-0, 2.45) and Michael Paredes (1-1, 4.05). Simas is at his third school in three years, starting at Fresno City College before jumping to the University of San Diego and then across town to rival SDSU. His high-spin rate 92-96 fastball jumps on hitters and he has a sharp curveball that might be the staff’s best breaking ball. The undersized Paredes is a competitor. He was in the Friday role last year and beat Oklahoma and first-round pick Cade Cavalli on the road. Lefty Jacob Flores (2-0, 1.45, 25 K in 18.2 IP) and righty Daniel Ritcheson (2-1, 5.76, 38 K in 29.2 IP in 2019) could be in the starting mix as well. Both are 6’4” third-year juniors with more than 50 innings experience primarily from the bullpen, so they are flexible pieces for pitching coach Sam Peraza. The bullpen is full of talented arms that got some experience last year. Avery Jones, Ricky Tibbett and Tre Brown gave up a combined 16 hits and two earned runs in 26 innings over 16 appearances. Brown is up to 94 mph with a nasty split, a perfect complement to close games out. There’s also fourth-year junior southpaw Christian Winston, third-year sophomore Aaron Eden, two-way lefty Brian Leonhardt and if a true freshman breaks through, it’s likely to be lefty Joey Ingrassia. All four are 6’2” or taller as are 29 players on the current roster.
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While the pitching staff will rely on the tall guys, the offense will depend on the shortest players on the roster as four players 5’9” or 5’10” are expected to start, including anticipated leadoff hitter Mike Jarvis (.273/.342/.424) and Matt Rudick (.313/.347/.478) in the three-hole. Jarvis played center field last year but is slotting in at shortstop after BYU bounceback Carson Matthews tore his ACL in the fall. He is a plus runner (5 SB) but the fifth-year senior has some pop (7 HR in 225 career AB) as well. Rudick is a pure hitter with a .318 career average and 60 strikeouts in more than 500 at-bats over 132 games. Fifth-year senior catcher/outfielder Ryan Orr provides consistent tough at-bats at 5’10” while 5’9” Oregon transfer Max Foxcroft is a plus defender and has made strides at the plate since joining the Aztecs. Wyatt Hendrie is elite defensively behind the plate with consistent sub-1.90 pop times. If his offense takes the jump the coaching staff believes it will this season, he’ll be a middle-of-the-lineup bat for San Diego State and an early draft pick for an MLB team. The rest of the lineup will feature a combination of known commodity consistent performers — Jaden Fein (.348, 1, 7) and Leonhardt (46 RBI in 64 games) — and high-upside youngsters that the staff thinks will take a big step forward: switch-hitting, plus runner Caden Miller and potential five-tool outfielder Xavier Carter, who is 6’4”, 210 pounds with a strong feel for the barrel. True freshmen Cole Carrigg, Pancho Ruiz, Fisher Pyatt and Tino Bethancourt are the core of the future, so don’t be surprised if they get some opportunities.
Keep an eye on
UNM was off to its best start in more than a decade, starting 14-4 before the season was abruptly canceled. Four pitchers made multiple starts and combined to go 6-0, 3.05. Even better, all four — Aaron Makil (2-0, 5.01), Justin Armbruester (1-0, 1.14), Tristin Lively (2-0, 2.95) and Nathaniel Garley (1-0, 3.18) —return to head the rotation in 2021. Armbruester was our Most Impressive Pitcher in the conference last year. He was striking out more than a batter per inning while holding hitters to a .173 average and allowing only three walks. Lively was up to 96 mph with his fastball in the fall and continues to take big strides with a power slider and curveball. Right-hander Cody Dye, a fifth-year junior, could also take over a rotation spot if he returns to his 2018 form when he led the team in innings and strikeouts. Tommy John surgery cost him 2019 and allowed him to only pitch 0.2 innings in 2020. The Lobos also have a pair of intriguing arms at the end of games in 6’4” two-way player Terrell Hudson, who had a team-best two saves and held opponents to a .211 average against, and Payton Strambler (3-1, 3.72, 1 SV). Strambler, a right-hander from McLennan Community College, was electric in his first season in Albuquerque. He struck out 17 in 9.2 innings.
The Lobos’ offense didn’t have a lot of pop last season. Harry Fullerton (.375/.487/.719) blasted three homers. Ediberto Reyes (.303/.365/.485) hit two while Kyle Landers had one. But New Mexico really worked the strike zone averaging more than five walks per game as a team, setting the table for the aforementioned trio. Fullerton, Reyes and Landers each had at least 16 RBIs. New Mexico had seven players who scored double-digit runs with five driving in double-digit runs. It was No. 9 in the nation in hits, No. 10 in doubles and No. 4 in triples, helping lead the conference in scoring. If they get Connor Mang (.366, 4, 47 in 2019) back on track, the offense becomes even more potent.
The Bulldogs have a combination of experienced hitters and talented pitchers that could do damage in a regional. However, how much impact will not being able to practice during the fall due to Covid-19 restrictions have? The Bulldogs bring back four players that scored double-digit runs and four players that drove in double-digit runs in 16 games before the 2020 season was canceled. The lineup is deep, physical and has some speed. Potential leadoff hitter Ryan Higgins does it all for the Bulldogs’ offense. He reached base in 15 of 16 games last season, leading the team with a .350 average and seven doubles. He scored 11 runs and drove in 12. Fourth-year junior catcher Zach Presno (.321/.441/.804) has hit 26 career home runs. He was third in the nation with eight last season. Presno will be protected by hard-hitting lefty Emilio Nogales (.298, 1, 13), who enters his fourth year as at least a part-time starter. Jeff Jamison (.263, 2, 8, 4 SB) gives them some speed. Fourth-year junior Nate Thimjon (.233, 6, 15) is another veteran thumper and third-year sophomore EJ Andrew Jr. is an explosive athlete that hit .290 as a freshman in 2019.
But the potential of this team will be determined by the front of the rotation duo of Jamison Hill and Nikoh Mitchell. Both have excelled in relief in the past but struggled to have the same success as starters. Mitchell (1-0, 0.93) was outstanding last season, striking out 15 and allowing one run in 9.2 innings. He is 88-92 from the left side with a fading changeup that gives hitters fits. Hill held opponents to a .242 average against in three starts before the season was halted. He’s 90-92 with plus breaking balls, which he threw with more consistency last season. Six-foot-four lefty Jake Dixon has a lot of upside. He was drafted in 2019 and had a 4.50 ERA as a reliever last year. He is expected to compete with true freshman Treven Crowley for the final weekend rotation spot while fifth-year junior Oscar Carvajal (2-2, 6.14) returns to the bullpen where he was excellent in 2019. He was 4-0, 2.68, 2 SV striking out 48 in 40.1 innings while tying for the team-lead with 28 appearances. The Bulldogs did lose lefty Jaime Arias, who successfully moved from closer to Friday starter last year. He signed as an undrafted free agent with Cleveland.
Stan Stolte’s UNLV team lost its Friday night starter but returns its next four starting pitchers and six of its defensive starters. They also add transfer Brendan Brooks at the top of the lineup and a pair of junior college transfers that add more depth to the lineup. The Rebels should be able to put some runs on the board, especially if Brooks can revert to his freshman form — when he led UC Irvine with a .308 average — to set the table for Jack-Thomas Wold (.277, 1, 6) and Eric Bigani (.394, 0, 14). The duo only had one homer last year but combined for 14 doubles. JTW hit six homers in each of his first two seasons. The coaching staff is hoping junior college transfers Diego Alarcon and Enrique Bennett can come in and make a similar impact as Bigani did in his first year out of Cypress College last year. Second-year freshman Austin Kryszczuk (.341/.472/.537) may the best pure hitter on the roster. He’s a compact bundle of line drives at 5’8”, 185 pounds. Center fielder James Gamble (.307, 0, 4, 4 SB) gives them some athleticism while 6’4” first baseman Austin Pfeifer (.217, 3, 13) provides power.
On the mound, the Rebels have perhaps the most experienced starter in the nation in Chase Maddux. The sixth-year right-hander will be in the UNLV rotation for the fifth year in a row, including a 2017 season as a midweek starter that was cut short by injury. He is 8-13, 4.75 in his career, but Maddux was off to a great start last season, going 1-0, 2.59 with 19 strikeouts in 24.1 innings — a strikeout rate that was up nearly three strikeouts per nine innings from his career numbers. Chase and the UNLV pitchers will be without the tutelage of his Hall of Fame father, Greg, this season after he had been the volunteer assistant the last three seasons. Chase will be joined in the rotation by third-year sophomore Noah Mattera and second-year southpaws Josh Sharman and Troy Balko. All three have experience starting as freshmen, but the trio has a combined 81.2 innings. The youngsters will have to hold off fifth-year senior Cameron Jabara. The 6’3” righty made 14 starts (2-7, 5.09) in 2019 but missed last season with an arm injury. There are plenty of starting pitcher candidates but plenty of questions in the bullpen. Conner Woods (0-1, 2.53 in 11 appearances) and Ty Pohlmann, who allowed two hits and no runs in 5.1 innings, are reliable options but no other returning reliever that threw 4+ innings had an ERA below 5.40.
The rest of the pack
Will it be a new era for Air Force this year? Could pitching actually carry the Falcons despite playing more than 7,000 feet above sea level in one of the most difficult home settings for pitchers? They have improved every year under pitching coach Ryan Forrest, dropping the team ERA more than two runs in his four-year tenure. The staff had a 5.43 ERA, which is notable for a program that has had only one season with a team ERA below 5.00 in the last 41 years. The Falcons broke the 5.00 ERA mark in conference play in 2019 for the first time in more than 40 years. Forrest is looking for third-year southpaw Stevan Fairburn Jr. (0-1, 4.91) to take another jump and lead the staff this season. He has a 4-1, 4.77 career mark and has only walked 15 batters in 56.2 innings, throwing three different pitches for strikes and mixing well. Zach Argo is back after missing the 2020 season. He struck out 42 in 48.1 innings as a freshman and had a 3.91 ERA in conference play. There are also high expectations for second-year freshmen right-handers Jason Shuger (0-0, 3.00) and Ryan Stohr (1-2, 3.32). Both are in contention for weekend rotation spots. Shuger sits 90-93 with a plus breaking ball while Stohr is a two-way player with a great arm that could break out this season. Nathan Price should be able to lock down the backend and has the versatility to be used for one inning multiple times in a weekend or to come on in the fifth or sixth inning and finish things off. He has made the most appearances of any Air Force pitcher the last two years. As a freshman in 2019, he had six wins, five saves and a 2.59 ERA, throwing 62.2 innings over 22 appearances.
The Falcons will try to bounce back offensively after having their worst average, on-base and slugging in five years. They tried to push the issue on the bases to offset their struggles at the plate, stealing nearly 2 1/2 bases per game, but speedster Ashton Easley (.299, 4 3B, 12 SB), who was also the team’s closer, signed with the Marlins last summer. Center fielder Cayden Zimmerman will continue to keep pitchers on their toes with his legs and also in the plate where the unconventional leadoff hitter is a free swinger but not easy to strikeout. Fourth-year junior Cole Blatchford returns to the middle of the lineup where he hit .343, 3, 13 with 5 SB last season. Utility player Tommy Gillman (.281, 1, 14) could be a breakout candidate while the Falcons expect big things out of true freshman Paul Skenes, who has power at the plate, behind the plate and on the pitcher’s mound. He could see time at all three spots.
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There’s no denying it. Nevada was one of the worst teams in the nation last year. It hit .188 with a 6.49 ERA. The Wolf Pack went 2-12 and had a bottom 10 offense nationally. They were among the 10 worst teams in batting average, on-base percentage and scoring. The pitching wasn’t that much better. They were No. 242 (out of 298) in ERA and No. 236 in WHIP. But the good news is there are talented pieces that should rebound and can be built around. Owen Sharts (0-3, 4.91) has one of the most talented arms in the conference. He has been up to 96 mph with a running fastball and has an above-average changeup. Jake Jackson (1-3, 3.00) is a competitor that knows how to win. He went 8-4 as a true freshman and had the best ERA among starters last year. Sharts and Jackson will give Nevada a chance to win a series in a single day this year. The Wolf Pack offense will need to get them some runs. The offense centers around Joshua Zamora and Dillan Shrum. Shrum carried Nevada last year hitting .265, 4, 7. He led the team in hits, doubles, homers, RBIs and total bases. Zamora, however, could never get things rolling. A .336 career hitter, he struggled to a .236, 0, 2 mark in the shortened campaign. Nevada’s coaching staff expects Zamora to bounce back and be a conference player of the year candidate. Of the expected starters this year, shortstop Wyatt Tilley (.234, 0, 6) is the only one that eclipsed the Mendoza line last season. The Wolf Pack are excited about two newcomers who could start in the outfield. JUCO transfer Dario Gomez is a speedster that slaps the ball gap to gap while freshman Jacob Stinson could play either of the corner outfield spots.
San Jose State
The San Jose State Spartans had a roller coaster 2020 season before things were ever shut down because of Covid. Brad Sanfilippo’s squad lost its first five games, won five of six and then lost its last six before the season was stopped. The Spartans finished third in the Mountain West in 2018, earning then-interim Sanfilippo the permanent job, but they haven’t found the consistent depth of talent to take the next step forward out of the Mountain West doldrums. That starts with the pitching staff where San Jose State hasn’t finished with an ERA below 5.00 in nearly a decade. Third-year sophomore right-hander Jonathan Clark (1-1, 2.25) is expected to take over at the front of the rotation after being strong in long relief last year. He held opposing hitters to a .103 average, giving up four hits while striking out 17 in 12 innings. Third-year lefty Ben Polack (1-0, 2.70) and fourth-year junior right-hander Spencer Long (0-2, 4.79) both have starting experience for the Spartans as does Sean Propel (1-1, 7.71). Key relievers Dom Eberle (0-0, 2.16, 1 SV) and Wesley Clawson (0-1, 5.02) give SJSU some backend options. The lineup returns almost completely intact, but the Spartans need some players to take a big step forward after only four starters finished with a batting average of .250 or better. Fourth-year sophomore Ruben Ibarra, at 6’5”, 290 pounds, provides the thump in the middle of the order, but he needs more runners on base in front of him. He hit .344 with eight extra-base hits in 17 games but had only eight RBIs. Third baseman Troy Viola (.271, 1, 9, 4 SB) was an all-conference selection last year after being among the Spartans’ team leaders in most offensive categories.