The New Mexico State baseball team is coming off a 34-24 season that saw the team endure a late season slide but with 15 returning letterwinners from a season ago the Aggies embark on the 2012 season with high expectations. The Aggie lineup is highlighted by preseason WAC Player of the Year and preseason All-American catcher Zac Fisher as well as well as preseason All-American and preseason All-WAC closer Scott Coffman.
The Aggies boast the deepest pitching staff they've had under head coach Rocky Ward and his staff with a total of 20 on the 35-man roster. Joining the staff with Coffman will be junior left-hander Ryan Beck, a ten game winner, as well as junior right-hander Tyler Mack who won six games. "Beck, Mack and Coffman are guys that are returning and pitched a lot of innings last year that we expect to have significant roles this year," said head coach Rocky Ward.
Joining Beck and Mack as potential starters are five other potential starters. "We have seven legitimate starters. All of them have three pitches, sometimes four. All of them have shown the ability to strikes consistently enough to be a starter," said Ward."
Two of the new projected starters are twins Adam and Evan Mott. The twin brothers come to New Mexico State via N.E. Oklahoma A&M junior college. "Adam and Evan Mott, they're 6'6" big, strong identical twin pitchers. They're both right-handers that are 88 to 91 velocity-wise, came in with a slider and good command," said Ward. "Evan has a little bit more consistent velocity, he's closer to 90-91 most of the time. Adam's a little bit more around 88-89, he's got a little bit better command. He's more of a precision type pitcher. He really works hard at throwing the ball to the corners and Evan is a little bit more about raw talent. They're really interesting pair that will be significant factors as starters in this group."
Joining the rotation this year after redshirting with the Aggies last season is right-hander Casey Collins. "Casey Collins is a big power arm who kind of came in with a 90 mph arm and big breaking ball," said Ward. "He had a little trouble with command last fall but he's really developed a dominant change and we're really pleased with the fact that he's a three pitch guy. When you can throw the straight change and it's deceptive, it makes the 90 mph fastball look like it's 100."
Rounding out the potential starting group are local product Michael Ormseth and sophomore returner Tim Torsney, both right-handed pitchers. "Michael Ormseth is a local product from Mayfield, he played the last two years at Luna Community College here in the state. He's a great story," said Ward. "When he came out of high school he was a good high school pitcher but he was an 80 mph pitcher, he threw a curveball, he threw a change but he didn't really have the prototypical velocity and/or, he's not a big 6'5" kid, he's kind of a normal kid but he's been throwing the ball 88-90 and he's got a breaking ball, change and a slider, kind of a four-pitch guy. He's actually led the team statistically through the fall and early spring as the most effective guy. Lowest ERA, lowest walks and hits per inning pitched. The WHIP is probably a more important indicating number than ERA is."
"Tim Torsney pitched a little bit last year as a freshman, pitched late in the year a little bit more and had some success," said Ward. "[He's] another kid that didn't have great velocity, breaking ball was a little inconsistent but really had a great fall. He started to show some arm strength."
Joining Coffman in the relief staff is senior right-hander Robert Roher. "Robert Roher who was inconsistent last year has kind of emerged as another potential close type guy. He's throwing the ball 90-91 pretty consistently. His slider's been pretty good," said Ward. "His problem a year ago was throwing strikes and he has gotten that fixed. He's really been able to go after the zone." Ward added, "It's been a while that we've had two guys we feel can come out of the bullpen and be effective [as closers]."
Also figuring into the mix in a relief role as a bridge pitcher is junior righty Randy Montoya, also a local product. "Randy Montoya a year ago was a sidearm guy. He was a bridge guy. Randy had marginal success, had a good day and a bad day," said Ward. "I took him back and put him back over the top which is what I saw him out of high school. [Out of high school] he was 88-90 with a good breaking ball and a change and then hurt his arm early in his senior year in high school and has taken a couple of years to recover from it and has not returned to that level of velocity but I wanted to see that good breaking ball again. Randy's had a good early spring and has done a nice job. His velocity is still down, still 81 to 83 mph but he's been able to show a pretty dominant breaking ball at time."
Several newcomers also figure into the mix in a relief role including left-handers Trey Higginbotham and Robert Kraft, right-handers Jeff Neptune, Brandon Cooper and Ryan Patterson.
"Trey Higginbotham is an Arizona based kid and he's showed he had top level type stuff. Good arm, good breaking ball but he was all over the place with command in the fall and he's really started to settle in and show some capability in the spring of being able to come in and throw strikes and throwing strikeout type stuff," said Ward. "I'm excited about that kid. He's probably the tenth guy right now. It's a staff that only has four left-handers out of 20 guys so a left-hander becomes kind of important.
"Robert Kraft is a soft left-hander who has a pretty good breaking ball. He's an Oklahoma kid and his coach called and said, "Hey, you've gotta take this guy." He's 81 mph at best. Some days he's only 78. He's a real soft lefty but the coaches just swore by him. "I don't care what the radar gun says, the kid just gets people out." He had trouble, a lot of high school pitchers have trouble handling our offense in the fall so he's not alone, but he's starting to show signs that he might be able to go in the middle of the game, two outs against a left-hand pitcher, starter coming out, the bridge role, and go throw me three breaking balls in a row and get a good left-handed hitter out. I'm optimistic about where he is."
"Brandon Cooper and Jeff Neptune, both junior college transfers, they're kind of power slider type guys. They're on the edge of making it. They just don't have enough command. They just don't throw quite enough strikes," said Ward. "They're getting close but we still haven't quite gotten to the point where you say, "He's there. He's going to go out and throw the slider five or six times against a good right-handed hitter and get us out of a jam." Those guys are still competing and they'll have a chance."
"Maybe the most interesting kid of all is a kid named Ryan Patterson out of Washington who does nothing but get people out. He again is a real low 80's guy, throws 78 to 80 mph. He throws there pitches, he's just a smart kid," said Ward. "The stuff coming from the mound doesn't look overpowering at all but he just seems to keep guys off balance. He'll throw a fastball inside that in normal cases a guy might lace but then he'll follow it up with a fastball around the guy's chin and throw a breaking ball off the plate, then throw a change and get him out on a ground ball to short."
Rounding out the staff are a pair of returners in Justin Cooper and Trey Ross who is injured and the coaching staff is hopeful will be ready by conference play. "Justin Cooper's back as a senior. He didn't have a very good year last year, he was coming off an arm surgery and he's still kind of working his way back," said Ward. "He's lost some of his velocity and in some cases you lose a little confidence. He's had a couple decent outings early in the spring scrimmages that's kept him in the mix."
"Trey Ross is a left-hander from a year ago who was good early in the season and then struggled late. He had an arm problem and he's kind of fighting through that right now," said Ward." "We hope that by conference he'll be healthy again and that he'll be able to help us.
Catching all the pitches from the Aggie staff will be the duty of a trio of Aggie players, two returners and a newcomer. The everyday starting catcher will be All-American Zac Fisher who returns as a junior this season after an outstanding sophomore campaign. "We've been really really fortunate in the last several years to have good quality catching," said Ward. "Fisher is the preseason All-Conference player of the year selection and is the marquee guy there. He really gained a lot late in the year last year."
Backing up Fisher this season will be right-handed newcomer Patrick McNeel.. "He's a very good defender," said Ward. "McNeel can flat out catch and throw. He's got a really great release, very accurate thrower." Ward added that McNeel struggled entering the program as a hitter. "He came in with a couple flaws in his swing but he hit a grand slam in the alumni game and he's learning how to hit and not only is he learning how to hit, he's hitting for some power."
Serving as an emergency catcher this season will be returner Tanner Rust. "The number three catcher who won't see very much time there is Tanner Rust but he's my number one first baseman," said Ward. "Tanner was a high school shortstop. I don't like him there so I moved him over to first and he did okay there." Ward added, "Every coach that's ever had him as a player loves the kid and how hard he plays as well as how well he plays under pressure. He'll kind of be my every day starting first baseman but he'll be my number three catcher and he'll play some outfield as well. He gives me a lot of flexibility."
The first base position will also have some familiar faces manning the bag as fellow catchers Zac Fisher and Patrick McNeel will serve as backups to Rust. "The catching/first baseman will be shared predominantly among the same three guys," said Ward. "Fisher will play at first some, he's not great there, he'll catch stuff around the bag," said Ward. "He doesn't have a lot of range and he won't dig a whole bunch of stuff out of the dirt but this particular club really has an accurate throwing infield so it's not something we worry a whole heck of a lot about."
"McNeel will play there some as well. McNeel is a pretty good defensive first baseman."
The opportunities at first base won't be limited to just the trio of catchers as returner Kurt Snowley and newcomer Cody Edwards may also see time at the bag. "Kurt Snowley might play there a little bit and the other guy is Cody Edwards who will likely DH more than anything else," said Ward. "Last year it was a real problem for us, we feel a lot more solid there this year."
Manning the bag at second base will be preseason All-WAC selection Parker Hipp who is coming off a sophomore season that saw him limited by injury. "Parker Hipp will be in his junior year and is just a great player all the way around," said Ward. "[Parker's] an outstanding defender, turns the double play better than anyone I've had and obviously he's a big second baseman who runs well and hits for power. That's my type of second baseman. He's been good there."
Backing Hipp up will be newcomer Josh Loera. "Josh Loera is a local product who went to NMMI. He's a small kid, if you remember Justin Lucero, that's about how Josh is," said Ward. "He'll back up Parker and that's where he'll serve at least in the depth chart. If we get fortunate enough in a few games and get out to big leads, I can get Josh some playing time and get Parker a little bit of rest."
The shortstop position will be manned by last season's third baseman, Zach Voight. "We've moved Zach Voight to short. He's going to be a surprise to a lot of people," said Ward. "Zach Voight will be a legitimate contender for first team all-conference at shortstop. He'll be a little bit different than what we've had," said Ward. "The last couple guys have kind of been rhythm infielders, good release, very accurate, good hands, that sort of thing. Zach has the best arm at short since Cory Harrington was here. Cory had a 90mph arm. He's got very good hands and Zach can get up and throw the baseball. He's a team leader and I'm excited about having him play there."
Like Hipp at second, Voight is coming off an injury dampened season but is back fully healthy. "and the best thing about Zach, he was hurt last year and struggled because he had to throw on the bunt play or the choppers off the end of the bat, he had to make a lot throws on the run, across his body. When he had to throw from a weird angle it caused him pain and he threw some balls away and had several throwing errors. He's healthy now and he's feeling good."
Backing up Voight at shortstop will be sophomore transfer Bryce Griffin. "Bryce Griffin is kind of a smaller type player that played for my brother up in Oklahoma," said Ward. "My brother swears by him and now I understand why. He's not real flashy, doesn't have a great arm, kind of like a Ryan Aguayo but he has great hands and gets the ball out and underway. He goes to his left very well and he's the guy thats set to be the backup in the middle infield either way, backup at short and backup at second."
With Voight sliding over to shortstop, third base will now be manned by a pair of players, newcomer Robert Lecount and returner Kurt Snowley. "Robert Lecount is the main guy but Kurt Snowley, a returning kid, has played really fabulous in the fall and early spring," said Ward. "He's made a lot of plays, he's grown up as a player. He's really played well there and between him and Lecount, they're going to get a lot of playing time there.
"Lecount is a right-handed hitter with some pretty good power, RBI type guy and Snow is a switch-hitter. I'm not saying that I'm going to platoon them but the first few weeks of the season it may look like it. I'm going to try to match them up a little bit," said Ward. "I'm pleased with both of those kids and I think we're very good there."
The Aggie outfield is again, one of the Aggies' strengths with the three regular starting spots locked up. "There are five guys, three of them are established," said Ward. "Tanner Waite in left field, Kyle Phillips in center that I really love, spark plug guy who can really hit. He's a really offensive center fielder but he's also a 6.6 runner and can go cover. Brian Karraker in right. Karraker is probably the best center fielder range wise, he's a lot better runner than what people think," said Ward. "It's hard to take him out of right field though because he plays it so well and throws the ball so well and that's maybe the only weakness with Kyle Phillips is he's not a real good thrower. So we kind of settled with this."
"I thought a year ago with Starkes in center that we covered as much range in the outfield as we had in a long time and I don't think we've missed a beat, we may be a little bit better."
"Andy Lyon will be an offensive outfielder and pinch hitter, really a streaky offensive player. He's really struggled to keep consistency but he's a hard working kid, he just hasn't quite been able to grab a hold of that good player that's inside. He's working through it," said Ward. "He'll be important to us. He's a very good outfielder and he really has legitimate power. When they hang a breaking ball to Andy Lyon, he'll light it up."
"Ethan Chavez, a transfer from Arizona, he can really run. He's our number one base stealing threat," said Ward. "He's still struggling in our offensive system. He's a smaller type player. He's still struggling in understanding how a small scamper [speed player] is going to fit in with all these monster power guys. He's going to be important to us. I'll use him as a defensive replacement in games and as a pinch runner."
The Aggies' schedule has been upgraded this season which will serve to not only test the veteran ball club but also hopefully provide an opportunity for plenty of RPI-building victories and a shot at the program's first NCAA Regional appearance since 2003. "It's a schedule that if I win 40, we're an automatic at-large team no question," said Ward.
You've got four against Wake Forest [to open], a very good, up and coming team in the ACC, you've got two at Rice who is ranked in the preseason Top 10, come back home to a series against a Sacred Heart team that you worry a little bit about them taking them lightly but they were the NEC Champion last year and went to a Regional. Minnesota's got a couple real good left-handed pitchers, Nebraska's solid," said Coach Ward. "They're big conference teams and so this first stretch is going to be a real good challenge."
Not only is the ball club veteran in terms of returners but it's also a very mature ball club that will be able to handle not only successes but also failure and learn from both. "The position playing club is very excited and they're ready for it. They're quietly very confident in what they can do."
"It's a team that can go out 4-8 and be strong enough mentally and psychologically to deal with it and continue to use that competition to play as we move on," said Ward. "It's a club that's prepared either way."
As is the case every year with the Aggies, much of their success will be determined by how well their pitching staff holds up. With two proven starters in Ryan Beck and Tyler Mack as well as a proven closer in Scott Coffman, it's the new additions that has the coaching staff the most excited about the potential for the club. "The key is how my pitching staff develops their personalities," said Ward. "I love my new guys. We've added a whole bunch to where we were a year ago."
"When you've got a legitimate closer you just don't worry about it. You get the lead late and you've got him sitting over there, there's a lot of confidence in the way you play when you've got a guy over there that you trust."
"Can we win the close one? Can we play the shorter run, close defensive battle? Are we going to be good enough on the mound to win the 3-2 game? That's the biggest concern just because we haven't done it much historically in this program. We've been able to do it some but just not consistently enough. The more that this pitching staff has the capability of carrying us through some stretches, the better we're going to be."
If the pitching staff evolves into the type of staff that the coaches believe it can, it will make the Aggies' offense that much more dangerous. "When you go through my lineup, there's going to be days when people aren't going to be able to stop us," said Ward. "I think what you're going to see is an offensive team that in any given day, any three parts of the lineup, one through three, four through six or seven through nine, might go 5-for-8 with a couple home runs and a couple doubles, any combination of those three guys can do that."
"We're starting at a better base than we have in the past," said Ward. "We're not waiting for as many guys to see what they can do. We have a lot of proven players and that's what makes the year so exciting."