Feb. 17, 2009
DAVIS, Calif. -
The UC Davis baseball team earned an appearance in the NCAA Division I Championship tournament during just its first year of eligibility in 2008. With the loss of 13 players to either the Major League Baseball (MLB) draft or graduation, the 2009 squad will rely on an influx of young talent to help continue those winning ways.
The Aggies must replace more than 400 innings from last season's pitching staff along with five of their top seven hitters. Overall, UC Davis lost four juniors to the MLB draft and graduated nine seniors.
"It's such a young team and there are so many question marks on the pitching staff, I really don't know what it's going to pan out to be," said Aggie head coach Rex Peters. "This could be a 20-win team or a 30-win team. A lot of it depends on how quickly our pitching staff matures and if we stay healthy. From a future standpoint, it's exciting. We have some young players on our team who are going to be very good as they mature."
"We swung the bats really well this fall and I think we're going to be a lot better offensively that we think," said Peters. "The two key guys are (Ty) Kelly and (Ryan) Scoma, but we need others to step up."
The Aggies lost all five starting pitchers from last season to graduation and the MLB draft. The list of drafted pitchers included their top three starters in Eddie Gamboa, Brad McAtee and Bryan Evans along with all-time saves leader Justin Fitzgerald. Overall, nearly 450 of the 525-plus innings pitched in 2008 are not returning in 2009.
"Without a doubt, pitching is the biggest question mark we have with this club," said Peters. "We don't have many proven pitchers coming back and it may take some time for us to sort things out."
Leading the way is senior right-hander Jeremy McChesney
and junior lefty Andy Suiter
. Both are expected to be Friday and Saturday starters, respectively. Last season McChesney returned after missing all of 2007 with an injury to earn a 2-2 record and a 4.10 ERA in 26.1 innings of relief. Suiter, who was drafted by the New York Yankees but chose to return to school, set a school record with 30 appearances and went 6-2 overall with 46 strikeouts in only 41 innings en route to All-Big West Conference accolades.
The Sunday and weekday starting positions are wide open and are being sought after by a number of young, talented pitchers. Redshirt freshman Scotty Walker is a hard-throwing left-hander who will compete as a starter early in the season. Freshmen Tyler Bremer and sophomore Tom Briner will also compete for innings in the starting rotation. Briner pitched sparingly as a true freshman last year and went 1-1 with 10 strikeouts in 11.1 innings.
The loss of Fitzgerald, who set a school record with 15 saves last season, leaves the bullpen duties to transfers Scott Heinig, Matthew Lewis and Tim Busbin. The team also looks to freshman David Popkins to step in and give solid relieve outings.
In addition, sophomore Scott Chew is back in the mix after sitting out last season and brings a solid left-handed presence in the later innings. Redshirt freshman Dayne Quist is another left-hander who will see some innings this season.
"Getting outs late in a game were key to our success last year and we will need someone to step up in that role for us to have a competitive season," said Peters.
With the loss of All-America catcher Jake Jefferies to the professional ranks, the Aggies will need to replace not only his potent bat but also his presence behind the plate. Junior third baseman Ty Kelly matched Jefferies' productiveness from the plate during his first full collegiate season last year. Kelly finished was last season's conference batting champion as his .397 batting average tied Daniel Descalso's 2007 mark for second-best in an Aggie season. Kelly's 94 hits also placed him second on the Aggie single-season list and helped him earn all-conference acclaim. His efforts earned him preseason accolades when he appearance on the Brooks Wallace Player of the Year Watch List and was named to the Ping! All-America team.
Sophomore Alex Dreyfuss backed up Jefferies last season behind the plate and will be counted on to run the defensive duties of calling a game while also providing the team with a solid bat in the latter portion of the batting order.
The team will also miss the solid contributions of departed seniors Matt Dempsey and Evan Hudson. Senior Grant Hirniese enters the season fully healthy after battling injuries during his career and will step in for Hudson at first base. Hirneise is expected to provide solid offensive numbers in the middle of the lineup and is coming off a season in which he batted near .300 despite missing more than 15 games.
Replacing Dempsey in the middle infield will be a group of young players. Sophomore Justin Schafer missed all but 12 games last season due to an injury and will look to return to the form he showed as a true freshman in 2007 when he batted .301. Schafer will likely start the season at second base but has the potential to play any of the middle infield positions as well as back up Kelly at third base.
Sophomores Rikki Foster
and Grant Bauer
also look to compete for time at second base.
Both players saw some time as freshmen with Bauer starting the final 12 games of the season at second.
Freshman Micheal Aldrete and sophomore Scott Heylman will compete for time at the shortstop position. Aldrete is one of the better defensive players on the squad and will look to challenge for a starting spot. Heylman started 40 games last season as a true freshman and could also play second base.
The graduation of seniors Ryan Royster and Kevin James open up the competition for some younger players in the outfield. Scoma is the leading outfielder and is again expected to put up big numbers as he did in his first season with the Aggies last year. Scoma batted .358 and drove in 52 runs en route to first-team All-Big West honors. He will play the corner outfield positions with his likely spot being left field.
Another big bat returning for the Aggies is junior Kyle Mihaylo, who finished second on the team last year in home runs with six and also drove in 32 runs and had 17 extra-base hits. Mihaylo was an All-Independent honoree as a true freshman in 2007 and may take over for Royster in center field along with seeing time in right field.
In addition, freshman Scott Lyman may also compete for playing time in right field due to his athletic abilities and powerful bat. Sophomore Daniel Cepin also played center field last season as a true freshman and will continue his roll as a versatile player.
"We think we could have a very deep and offensive group in the outfield," commented Peters. "Scoma, Mihaylo and Lyman all have some pop in their bats and could provide good run production. Sophomore transfer Jared Thompson and redshirt freshmen Tony Bongiovanni add to that depth and will contribute in the designated hitter role."
UC Davis, which are among others receiving votes in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) preseason poll, begins its season Feb. 20 at UCLA. The Bruins are ranked in the top 20 by several preseason polls, including its highest ranking at No. 12 by Baseball America. That game marks the beginning of a tough schedule for the Aggies that features seven schools included in preseason polls along with defending national champion Fresno State. In addition, the Aggies' schedule was rated as the 13th-toughest in the country by boydsworld.com.
"It's the toughest schedule we've ever played," said Peters. "It'll be a big challenge for us, but it will pay dividends when we get into conference because the only way you get better is to play quality teams."
The Aggies come home to Dobbins Stadium for the first time beginning Feb. 24 with San Francisco and continuing into a three-game series with No. 21 Pepperdine on Feb. 27. UC Davis hosts a total of 26 games at Dobbins Stadium.
UC Davis also faces Pacific-10 Conference frontrunners Stanford and Cal twice during the season. Stanford is ranked as high as No. 9 in preseason rankings while Cal is among others receiving votes. In addition, the Aggies' April 3 game at San Diego State will be played at PETCO Park - home of the San Diego Padres.
Big West Conference competition will also be tough as No. 10 Cal State Fullerton and No. 15 UC Irvine headline a challenging 24-game league schedule. Conference home games come against UC Santa Barbara (4/9-4/11), Cal State Fullerton (4/24-4/26), UC Riverside (5/8-5/10) and Cal State Northridge (5/22-5/24).
"It helps when we get some of the better teams at home," said Peters of the conference schedule. "It's tough to tell how some of the teams will be because they also lost a lot in the draft. The conference is very tough this year."
"I expect the conference will be competitive and wide open," continued Peters. "I feel there are possibly six teams that could walk away with a Big West title in the end."
UC Davis has been picked to finish seventh in the conference coaches poll. Last season the Aggies were picked ninth but surprised their doubters with a historic run to a regional berth.