The New Mexico State baseball team has won 80 games over the past two seasons and are looking to put together a third straight 35-plus win season, something that has never been done in program history. The Aggies lost a lot of talent from the 2010 team that finished 36-23-1 and tied for second place during the regular season. Gone are the bats of Leo Aguirre (.388, 19 doubles, 11 HR), Mike Sodders (.380, 15 HR), Ben Harty (.408, 12 HR), Chris Auten (.299, 12 doubles, 8 home runs) and Nate Shaver (.367, 19 doubles, 4 triples).
That loss of productivity led the league's coaches to pick the Aggies to finish fifth in the regular season. However, New Mexico State has reloaded with both junior college and freshman talent and despite new bat technology that will reduce offensive numbers drastically, the Aggies are ready to prove the rest of the league wrong and are primed for another run at the WAC title and a return to the NCAA Regionals for the first time since the 2003 season.
The Aggie schedule will see them play their first eight at home followed by a tournament in Beaumont, Tex. and also a tournament in Corvallis, Ore where they'll face Oregon State twice as the Beavers are the last team to repeat as College World Series champions winning in 2006 and again in 2007, one of only four teams to repeat as CWS champions in the 63 year history of the championship. The Aggies will end non-conference play with 12 straight at home and will host conference foes San Jose State, Sacramento State and Hawai'i to end the regular season. Once again the WAC tournament will be held at a neutral site in Mesa, Arizona.
The Aggies return three of four starters on the mound in 2011 from a team that won 36 games a year ago. Those three players, Dan Reid, Tyler Mack and Ryan Beck combined for a 15-5 record with 186.0 innings pitched between the three returners. "Dan Reid, Ryan Beck and Tyler Mack are the guys that come back with the most innings pitched as starters so they look to be one, two and three on the mound. Then you have [Justin] Cooper and [Scott] Coffman back in the bullpen as returning people that are pretty important," said head coach Rocky Ward.
The Aggies will be looking to fill the fourth starting spot and one of those players being considered is right-handed junior college transfer Riley Bevill (Western Nevada College). "He had a pretty good fall this year and earned that spot," said Ward.
Other potential starters include left-hander Trey Ross. "He's healthy now and we think that he's got a fairly good chance of being a significant guy," said Ward. "As a left-handed starter is where we'll try him first, but then after that maybe as a left-handed specialist. He's done enough to maybe be a setup or close guy, somebody that you might look at to close a game if he's got to face four or five left-handers."
The Aggies may also look to local product Randy Montoya, a right-hander, in early starting roles. "We started him couple times this past fall to see how he'd handle it. He's got a real good breaking ball, arm strength is adequate, we're still working on the change a little bit. If he keeps progressing as a normal right-hander, he'll have a chance to have a fairly significant role with the club," said Ward.
The Aggies will be searching for one or two pitchers to fill the bridge role, a role used by the Aggies to bridge between the starters and setup pitchers. "It's one of those roles that requires a special kind of kid because as the bridge guy you don't build stats. You don't get wins as a bridge guy, you don't get saves as a bridge guy but from the standpoint of the team's needs, if you're leading 5-4 in the 5th or 6th inning and the other team has 1st and 2nd with one out and your starter is past his pitch count and ready to go," said Ward. That guy comes in and gets a double-play and gets us out of the inning. It's the most important hitter of the game. It keeps the lead and then a lot of times with our offense we'll go out and score right off of that and the game will be over.
That pitcher last year was often times Adam Heredia, however, the Aggies will be without the services of Heredia this spring. Two players who could receive consideration for those spots are freshmen Tyler Hetrick and freshman Tim Torsney. "Tyler Hetrick didn't have a real good fall but is one of those kids that showed some signs of getting there. Then an older kid by the name of Tim Torsney who's got a chance," said Ward. "They're potential guys. Right now they don't really have roles."
Two pitchers who could see significant time for the Aggies due to their versatility are right-handed junior Robert Roher (Navarro Junior College) and right-handed throwing freshman Ruben Gonsalez (Carlsbad, N.M.)
"Robert Roher could be a starter," said Ward. "He's a lot like Jake Wilson was a few years ago when Jake was starting. Most people remember Jake as a guy that was our closer as a sidearm guy but as a junior he was a starter/close type guy. [Robert's] got the kind of stuff to do both. He's a right-hander that's got multiple breaking balls and pretty good command," said Ward. "I would prefer that he not be a starter because he's got so much flexibility that he's the type of guy that might be able to come out on Friday and close a game and then on Saturday come out and throw a one-inning bridge role and then on Sunday throw two innings in the setup role. He's going to be interesting and I think he'll end up being pretty important."
Gonsalez, a true freshman could play multiple roles for the Aggies including seeing time in the field. "He's one of those kids that came in well behind everybody else and made a nice run in the early fall to get up there but he still didn't pass anybody. If he keeps moving along he might be a little bit of a factor," said Ward. "He's a unique kid in that he's a pretty good hitter and a first baseman as well. When you start looking at travel squads, right now we know we might need him on the mound and if he performs well enough to warrant a chance on the mound then he's a guy that you would really consider strongly to travel with because he gives you a left-handed pinch hitter off the bench as well."
The Aggies are fairly well set at the setup and close positions as they return right-hander Justin Cooper and right-hander Scott Coffman.
Coffman returns for his junior season after posting a 3-4 record in 28 appearances and 28.1 innings pitched. Coffman recorded 36 strikeouts and just eight walks last season while recording four saves. "Scotty is one of those kids who is highly respected by his teammates," said Ward. He's earned his stripes within this ballclub as a key component of it. I think we made a mistake last year a little bit because we played so well early in the year that he didn't have very many close opportunities and I think we fell in the standard deal that Coffman was our closer and then you look up 15 games in and he only had eight innings pitched. So we sat down as a staff and said that's not going to happen. He also suffered from a little elbow tenderness last season because we didn't get him as much rest as his freshman year. He's really healthy, he's in really good shape, we're looking forward to a good solid year."
Justin Cooper split time between a setup/close and starting role last season but missed the entire fall recovering from arm surgery. "Those things are hard to recover from," said Ward. "His rehab has gone great and he's feeing good but we won't get a real good assessment for where he's at until another week when we start our practices. We're thinking that we'll be back to full swing by conference or he could be back right away."
With Cooper's full potential unknown, left-handed junior Gerry Renteria will get looks in the close role. "Gerry Renteria is a left-handed side-armer that predominantly will be a left-handed closer, very much like [Jake] Wilson was," said Ward.
"It's 13 guys and we feel like we've got pretty good pieces," said Ward. The Aggie pitchers will certainly benefit from the new BBCOR bats which have been designed to perform closer to to wood bats.
The Aggies have the strongest group of catchers in the league in returners Chuck Howard and Zac Fisher. Howard sat out last season while Fisher earned valuable experience as a freshman with the absence of Howard and injury to starter Ben Harty. Fisher batted .350 in 123 at bats with 11 doubles and eight home runs. In 2009, Howard batted .340 in 100 at bats with six doubles and five home runs. Both Howard and Fisher are strong defensively with fielding percentages of .987 with just two errors and .986 with just three errors respectively. "It's a right/left-handed hitting combination and it's really nice to have that," said Ward.
The Aggies also have high hopes for freshman catcher Cody Sos. "We really like [him], he needs some seasoning but he's ahead of a lot of freshmen, he's ready to play in the role we have," said Ward.
Rounding out the catching crew is senior Tyler Owens. "Tyler Owens didn't get much catching time last year as the number three catcher but he had a fabulous fall as a hitter and continues to improve behind the plate," said Ward.
Continuing in the footsteps of previous Aggie catchers Jeff Farnham, Jared Jordan and Ben Harty, the Aggie catchers may also see some time at other positions, namely first base. "Any of those three or four kids may spend some time at first base, we have a really good crew of guys and they're really flexible."
Both Howard and Fisher earned valuable playing time as freshmen and both were able to earn from experienced catchers in front of them with Howard earning the duty behind Jeff Farnham and Fisher behind Ben Harty and Jared Jordan and head coach Rocky Ward feels that experience helped both. "It's the only player that views the entire field the whole time and so they do have a visual of where people are positioned and as catchers develop in maturity they go from just trying to catch and block the ball and frame it to being able to mentally and psychologically call the game as to which pitches are thrown based on the pitcher, then transitioning into paying attention to whether or not a position player may be out of position for a pitch or two," said Ward. "Zac isn't there yet. He's a good catcher/receiver, obviously a very good offensive catcher. He got better at calling pitches as the year went on. Chuck is kind of at that stage where he's the full-fledged well rounded guy ready to go. Fish gained a lot of experience to that point. Obviously it benefitted him a lot. We were happy that we had a Zac Fisher available to us and we were fortunate enough to have Jared Jordan who had significant playing time, Fish caught a lot of innings and that experience gained will benefit him a whole bunch. He'll be a cleaner, more reliable player because of it."
The first base position has been a bit of a revolving door for the Aggies over the past couple of seasons with the position being manned by a combination of Chris Auten, Leo Aguirre, Ben Harty and Jared Jordan as well as others. This season the Aggies are still searching for a full-time first baseman with two or three players headlining the group in contention.
One player who will get a look at first is Ryan Laing, a senior who redshirted last season. "He [Ryan] was here last year but he redshirted because we had guys that were there. There wasn't any room. Ryan is an average first baseman that's really turned into a great offensive player. He's basically going to be a first baseman/DH," said Ward. "Ryan Laing, based on what he did this fall leading in several categories, has made himself very valuable on the offensive side of the game."
"Andy Lyon is a kid that is an outfielder that's played some first base and Tanner Rust is a guy who we obviously didn't have in the fall because he was playing quarterback for the football team. Basically there's 10 or 11 guys that might play first base. Obviously we have to do a job in the next three weeks to pare that down a little bit but that is the position that we look to be the weakest," said Ward. "Hopefully we'll feel better about that by the time we open the season. It could be anybody."
The Aggies are set for the future at second base with sophomore Parker Hipp manning the position. Hipp was thrust into duty last season after preseason All-American Mike Sodders went down with injury and missed significant playing time. Hipp filled in admirably as a true freshman playing in 51 of the Aggies' 60 games while starting 42 of those games. Hipp hit .349 with 10 doubles and a home run. "When the [Sodders] injury occurred he became the everyday starter and it helped him a whole bunch. He played outstandingly," said Ward. "We won 23 of 25 games after Sodders went down and he obviously had a little bit to do with that." Head coach Rocky Ward expects Hipp to continue to improve and also potentially show himself as a power threat this season. "He has continued to progress as a hitter," said Ward. "He's starting to carry the ball another 10 or 15 feet. He hit a big one at Sacramento that helped us win a game but that was not part of his game. He was kind of a singles, doubles, contact hitter. He's a very good runner but he's starting to show some game power. It wouldn't surprise me if Parker was able to hit five or six home runs this year and be a little bit of a home run threat."
Backing up Hipp at second will be Argenis Paz, a transfer from Northeastern Oklahoma Junior College. "He's not as talented as Hipp but he's just a really good hard-nosed baseball player," said Ward. "He started to come on in the fall but then got hit by a pitch and broke his hand and missed the last part of the fall. It hurt him a lot because it looked like he was starting to make a name for himself. I really like the kid's heart and soul. He doesn't match up physically with other people but he's a baseball player."
The Aggies must replace two year starter Wade Reynoso at third base but head coach Rocky Ward believes he's found his man in Zach Voight. "Zach Voight grades out, he's a good runner, he's got a 90 mile per hour arm, he has fabulous hands and has made as fast of progress in our hitting system as I've had a guy make in a long time," said Ward. "You try not to get too excited about a player and you try not to make too many crazy statements but Zach Voight to me is a First Team All-American third baseman. I think he's that good. I'm excited about him and what he could potentially do in this program."
Backing up Voight at third base will be left-hander Kurt Snowley. "Kurt may get some playing time there against a dominant right-handed breaking ball pitcher," said Ward.
Last season the shortstop position was the largest hole to fill on the team with a departing senior who was named to six All-American teams in Bryan Marquez leaving a large void to fill, however, Cal State-Fullerton transfer Ryan Aguayo stepped in and filled the spot quite nicely nearly matching many of the offensive and defensive numbers put up by Marquez. "Ryan was a nice transition. Obviously when you lose a guy like Bryan Marquez you're concerned by it because you know you can't expect the next guy is going to come in and do the same thing," said Ward. "Ryan provided us, not the same numbers as Bryan but they weren't that far off. Bryan hit 20-some home runs, Aguayo hit 12 but as far as the type of player, he's very reliable. He's clearly the starting shortstop to enter the season. Ryan is one of those guys that during the fall of last year, he doesn't grade very well, he's just a good baseball player that's earned that role."
Backing up Aguayo at shortstop will be Tyler Forney, a transfer from Yavapai Junior College where he was the starting shortstop. "Tyler Forney is an interesting kid," said Ward. "Every time I have a Yavapai kid they mean something special to me because my dad started that program and I grew up watching dad win a couple national championships with Yavapai College. He's about 5'8", 150 pounds. He's a little guy and he's got a surprising amount of power as a hitter and is probably the most skilled defender on the field, including [Parker] Hipp." Ward added, "He's probably what you would consider the number four infielder. There's some plays he made this fall that I've never had a player make but he also had a tendency to not be consistent enough on the routine stuff. That's kind of the litmus test for an infielder to be a starter. They might not make every play but they have to make the routine two-hopper with 12,000 people at Fresno State screaming at them with the bases loaded and two outs. They've gotta make that play every time. They have to make the routine play under pressure very time. Ryan Aguayo can do that, Tyler Forney still has to prove he can do that. "
The Aggies return a deep and talented outfield but must fill the right field position, a spot that was manned by Nate Shaver for the past two seasons. Shaver's loss may be the most difficult to fill as he provided a steady presence in right field for the Aggies playing 60 of the Aggies' 61 games in 2009 and 56 of the Aggies' 60 games in 2010 and starting 111 of the 116 games he played in. He batted .344 in '09 and bettered it batting .367, third best on the team, in '10 with 35 doubles and 14 home runs over his two year stretch and defensively he made plays when the team needed them the most. "When we go back and look at last year's team, We lost [Ben] Harty and [Mike] Sodders halfway through the season, [Zac] Fisher and [Parker] Hipp did fabulous jobs replacing those kids but we also had below average years out of Auten and Reynoso and that made us not quite as good as we thought we could be. Nate Shaver was the guy that held us all together," said Ward. "He was a guy that played up. He'd been a good, solid consistent player as a junior, we thought he was clearly our best outfielder but as a senior he took over a leadership role when it was needed. He was really important to us, in particular during the middle of that streak. His numbers during that time when we had our best hitters on the disabled list, that was when he was at his best."
The player the coaching staff will look to in order to fill the void left by Shaver is junior college transfer Andy Lyon. "Andy Lyon, he has a special tie-in. He played at Edmonds Community College in Seattle, WA. The coach there is a guy named Brad Ditter, an All-American for me," said Coach Ward. "Nobody wanted this kid. Brad kept saying, 'I can't get anybody to recruit him coach! He made All-Conference First Team, he made All-Tournament First-Team in the postseason tournament and nobody wants him. I think he can play.'"
"He's a tall, 6'3", 220 pounder and you watch him play the first day and you don't think very much about him but as you watch him play, the kid is a very good runner, he throws the ball very well, he gets really good breaks in the outfield," said Ward. "He gets to balls like Shaver did for us, Nate used to get the balls that you didn't expect him to reach. Nate wasn't a great runner, he just got really good breaks and took really good angles on the ball. Andy Lyon has been a guy that has shown us he can do that."
Lyon also brings an offensive presence to the plate that materialized over the winter break. "He came in here mechanically as a hitter, as a big strong kid that had okay mechanics that was only using about 70 percent of his body," said Ward. "We got him to the point where he was using about 80 percent at the the fall and he was competing pretty well. But since he's come back from the break he's been an absolute monster in the batting cage. He's hitting balls out of here left and right."
"The first day that dad worked with him, I happened to miss that BP session, dad comes in and says, 'You won't believe what Andy Lyon just did. He just hit 25 out of 30 balls out of the yard with this new crappy bat.' You gotta understand, we only hit 20 home runs all last fall, all together. The fall before that we hit 80. The new bats perform significantly less. In any BP session we had this fall, out of 50 pitches there probably wasn't any guy that hit more than four or five home runs out of 50 pitches. To do what he did was some big 'AHA' breakthrough moment. We can't wait to him into a game to see if it'll transition there."
We have Chace Perkins who is a preseason All-American. He had a fabulous year a year ago and we have Wes Starkes who was a part of that group that kind of took on a different role when we lost those players and proved that he could be more than just a defensive outfield and that he could get on base and steal bases and drive some runs in. We're really pleased with those two kids in those roles in the outfield.
Also competing for time at right field is Bryan Karraker, a right-handed hitting transfer from Central Arizona College. "Bryan Karraker is a really fabulous athlete, hard-nosed type player. Tough type personality and he came in here out of junior college and missed about 80 percent of the fall because he had to have knee surgery. He came back and played with us in the scrimmages in the last two weeks of the fall and showed that he's going to be a pretty legitimate power source," said Ward. "He's a very good outfielder, he throws outstandingly. In a period of two weeks he managed to move himself up the charts. That's pretty hard to do."
"In Karraker and Lyon I think I've got two guys that can play right field," said Ward. "I'm never going to say [they] can play better than Shaver did because he was as good as I've ever had there but we're really pleased with those guys.
In center field the Aggies return Wesley Starkes who emerged last season as an outstanding center fielder and the Aggies' best running threat with nine stolen bases on nine attempts. Starkes batted .364 with eight doubles and a team-high five triples.
In left field the Aggies have preseason All-American Chace Perkins who also broke onto the scene in 2010 batting .363 with 17 doubles and team-highs in home runs with 17 and RBIs with 70.
Backing up the veterans in the outfield are several players including Justin Klusak, Tanner Waite and Ryan Clark.
"Justin has really really struggled with trying to understanding what we're trying to do with our hitting system. Every year we've got one guy that can't quite figure it out and hopefully you've got four or five guys that figure out at a big time level but there's always one guy that has the skills to do it but just can't quite get it right and he's kind of in that spot right now," said Ward. "Justin Klusak is really a plus-plus defensive outfield. He's a 6.5 runner that just breaks and runs and makes plays. He's a step better than Wes Starkes as far as what kind of coverage he has as a center fielder."
Tanner Waite, a 5'10" left-handed transfer from Lamar Community College who figures to see playing time as a left-handed bat. "He's a 5'10", 190-guy, stocky build. That type of hitter is really hard to get much more power out of with their swing than what they come with. They don't have big levers," said Ward. "Tanner has just competed his butt off during the fall and he's been another guy a lot like Lyon that the time off, we push these kids so hard into understanding our system. Our system is unique because it requires that the hitter learn the offensive system like they were coaching it. The secret of our success is we train these kids to be able to teach other people. Tanner Waite is one of those guys that's made the breakthrough. He's able to make adjustments on his own. He's starting to carry the ball 15 to 20 feet better than he did and he's starting to show power. The fact that we have Perkins, Starkes, Klusak, Lyon and Karraker, all right-handed outfielders, Waite being a left-handed hitting outfielder really becomes valuable to us."
The final piece of the puzzle in the outfield is Ryan Clark, a big 6'4" left-handed hitter. "Ryan is the guy who has the most potential to be a big-time player. Ryan Clark has dynamite in his hands," said Ward. "He'll take wood bats… he basically didn't like the aluminum bats so he swung wood all fall. He's hitting balls with the wooden bats over the trees in right-center with ease. Just a sweet smooth swing."
"He's another guy that got injured this fall. He had an oblique strain and a hitter can't hit with it," said Ward. "He was able to come back from injury the last week of the fall and hit two or three home runs in the scrimmages and all of them were just beautiful pieces of work, majestic, towering home runs. We weren't seeing much of that from anybody else."
The one area Coach Ward says is holding Clark back is in the fielding department. "He's a unique kid. Outfielders have to be able to do three things. They have to be able to break well on the ball, they have to be able to use their speed to run to it and take the correct angle and then they have to be able to catch it when they get there. The catch it when they get there has always kind of been a given if a kid's made it to this level," said Ward. "That's where he kind of has trouble. He breaks pretty good, he runs pretty good, he's not very clean on the catch. Now he's not going to drop a ball that he's standing underneath. That's not what I'm saying. He just doesn't close the last step on the ball very well. There are some balls off the bat that he breaks and runs and gets to and he just is not completing enough of them. We're still working with him as an outfielder and as you can tell we have a ton of guys that are all highly regarded. Ryan Clark will be considered as a first baseman as well. I have to find a way to get him in the lineup because Ryan has potential to be a dominant left-handed power hitter."
As is the norm in Las Cruces, offense will not be lacking from the Aggie lineup, even with the new BBCOR bats. The biggest issue may be finding playing time for all the offensive firepower. Says Ward, "Here's the issue, I have to find a way to get Ryan Laing in the lineup, I think he might very well turn into the most dominant hitter in the league as a right-handed hitter. Ryan Clark might be the most dominant left-handed hitter. I have two of the best power hitters in those two guys." He added, "Then Zac Fisher, he's not chopped liver. We kind of have some good problems. Right now when we look at how we're going to line up in the early part of the season, Ryan Clark is kind of the left-handed hitting DH that'll play first and left a little bit and Ryan Laing is the right-handed hitting DH that'll play a little bit of first."
"I have a good solid 15 frontline guys, any of which can start. I think pretty much any combination of outfielders I put out there are going to be as good as any I've put out on the field," said Ward. "My base defensive infield is very solid. Our only real concerns we have for this clubs is if first base is going to end up being a defensive problem for us. We don't have a dead set number four starter on the mound."
"We feel like the pitching staff. When you look at the statistics of any baseball team, eight pitchers will throw 95 percent of your pitches. So you have to have the eight, you have to have four starters and four relievers and we have six that we're comfortable with," said Ward. "We'll have to see some progress out of some of the new guys on the mound. We may be a little short early in the year as a couple guys gain some maturity and some game experience."
One of the often overlooked areas for the Aggies has been their defense. In 2008 the team struggled committing 138 errors on the season. In 2009 the team made a remarkable defensive turnaround committing just 76. The team committed a few more errors last season, 95, but were still a strong defensive club. The Aggie defense has gone from a liability to an asset and with this year's club, that should continue. "A guy that came to my camps years ago named J.T. Bloodworth decided that he and his family would be willing to bring him in as a volunteer coach and he became my defensive guy and for the past three years I've had a full-time guy to work with my defense," said Ward. "He's a very good teacher, he's available to him at all times. In the past we worked with our guys on defense but not as specified as he's able to do. That's his job. His job is to train my defenders in the offseason, prepare them to play at this time of the year and then during the season continue to make adjustments with them as well as position themselves correctly based on hitter/pitcher matchups. Coach Bloodworth has been invaluable in that area in helping us solidify ourselves as a defensive club."
The Aggies have also done well on the road which has been a key to the Aggies' success the past two seasons sporting a 28-14 record in true road games. "Our offense is good wherever you put them and our pitching staff, whatever we might lose offensively, our pitching staff has become good enough to counter the lower levels. We've really pitched well on the road. I think we've done a better job of expecting higher from our pitching staffs when we go on the road."
When looking at where the Aggies can finish this season one has to believe that they will finish well above their projected fifth place pick in the WAC preseason poll.
There are certainly unknowns when replacing the type of productivity that they lost but the Ward coaching system nearly every year produces one or two second year players who have breakout seasons. This year, three players are primed to make that jump in sophomores Parker Hipp and Zac Fisher and senior Chuck Howard. "They got a ton of experience as freshmen. Hipp was kind of a down the lineup type hitter last year. I looked at him a couple times in the two hole because he fit that skill set. Fisher and he both had very solid years. I think they could both have breakthrough years," said Ward. "I kind of expect those two guys out of all of them. Chuck's performance in the fall and the performance he put up in the second half of the season two years ago tells me that he might be a guy that makes that kind of jump for us as offensive people."
The coaching staff is also expecting big things out of second-year Aggies Dan Reid, Ryan Beck and Tyler Mack. "I think in Reid, Mack and Beck, all three of those guys are ready to take on a much higher role and put up much better numbers on the mound," said Ward. "Maybe this ball club's ability to get itself into the Top 25 and play in the top of the league as we did last year and seriously consider winning a WAC championship will depend an awful lot on what those three pitchers do."