Wolf Pack ready for WAC tourney
The Nevada Wolf Pack baseball team clearly does not suffer from a lack of confidence heading into the Western Athletic Conference tournament.
“We have to be considered the favorites going in,” senior first baseman Shaun Kort said earlier this week. “I think we’re playing the best baseball of any team in the conference right now.”
It’s difficult to argue with Kort.
The Pack, which opens the six-team, double-elimination WAC tournament in Mesa, Ariz., on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m., 630-AM) against San Jose State, has won seven of its last eight games to finish the regular season 34-20-1 overall and tied for second in the WAC with New Mexico State at 14-9-1.
The numbers, though, become even more impressive when you travel even further back in time. The Pack’s season actually turned around in late March after it lost four games at Oregon to the Ducks on March 19-21 to fall to 10-10.
Since that wake-up call, the Wolf Pack has gone 24-10-1. It is the school’s best record over its last 35 regular season games since the 1994 team went 26-9. Only one other team in Gary Powers’ 28-year career as Wolf Pack head coach has fared better over its last 35 regular season games than this year’s team. The 1992 team, which played an independent schedule in its transition year from the West Coast Conference to the Big West Conference, was 27-7-1.
“This team has responded to the challenge like we wanted them to,” said Powers, who brings an 8-8 career record in WAC tournament play to Mesa’s Hohokam Stadium this week. “I’ve been tough on this team right from the start and they responded.”
What a difference a year makes. A year ago, the Pack headed to the WAC tournament in Hawaii after losing nine of its last 10 regular season games. They proceeded to get swept out of the tournament in two games.
“This team had a long ways to go when we started this year,” Powers said. “Last year was a big disappointment for everybody. And we’ve had our ups and downs this year. But this team worked hard and developed the consistency it needed to win games.”
The Wolf Pack won 10 of its last 13 WAC games and won its last three WAC four-game series. So it’s easy to see where the confidence comes from this week.
“I like the way we’re playing right now,” junior outfielder Brian Barnett said. “We’re playing real good baseball.”
The Wolf Pack has never won a postseason tournament of any kind under Powers. Powers’ Pack teams have gone to 11 postseason tournaments in his previous 27 years and have finished as high as second just three times (in the 2007, 2008 WAC tournaments and 1999 NCAA regional at Stanford).
Powers’ Pack teams are 16-22 overall in postseason play.
Why does this year have a chance to be different? Well, in one word, pitching. The Pack will bring four solid starters to Hohokam Stadium in left-handers Chris Garcia (6-3, 4.82 earned run average) and Brock Stassi (7-4, 3.28) and right-handers Tom Jameson (5-1, 4.21) and Jeremy Cole (4-2, 4.68).
Powers, who declined to name his starting pitcher against San Jose State before leaving for Arizona on Tuesday, said the bullpen will be equally important this week.
“It’s not just one or two guys,” Powers said. “It’s been the whole staff. The key element is our four top guys in the bullpen are just as important as those four starters.”
Those top four relievers are right-handers Beau Witsoe (3-2, 5.87), Tyler Graham (3-5, 4.10, 9 saves) and Jesse Rasner (1-0, 3.82) and left-hander Mat Keplinger (1-1, 7.11).
“All those guys have done a real nice job lately,” Powers said. “They’ve all come up big for us when we needed them.”
The Wolf Pack won three of four games from San Jose State at Peccole Park on May 7-9. San Jose State had won 12 of its last 15 games against the Pack dating back to the 2007 season.
The results were a bit different this year.
The Wolf Pack roughed up all four San Jose State starters (Blake McFarland, Sean Martin, John Austin and Luke Mazzanti) in the one-sided series at Peccole Park. The four Spartan starters allowed a combined 30 hits and 18 runs in just 11.1 innings and none of them got past the fourth inning.
The Spartans struggled all season, finishing 21-35 overall and in sixth place in the WAC regular season at 9-15. San Jose hit just .289 as a team and averaged just 5.3 runs a game with only 24 home runs. Their team ERA stands at 6.32.
The Pack, by comparison, is hitting .314 with 69 home runs and has averaged eight runs a game. The Pack’s team ERA is 5.29.
Barnett, with 18 homers and 71 RBI, has almost four times as many home runs as San Jose State’s leader (Karson Klauer with five) and nearly twice as many RBI as the Spartans’ leader (Corey Valine with 38).
“Our offense is clicking now,” said Barnett, who is joined in Nevada’s power-packed lineup by Kort (.373, 9 homers, 55 RBI), Stassi (.378, 9 homers, 42 RBI), and Nick Melino (.386, 6 homers, 31 RBI).
The winner of the WAC tournament earns the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA regionals. The Pack hasn’t been to a regional since 2000, it’s final year in the Big West Conference.
“It would mean a lot for these kids,” Powers said. “They deserve that reward for how hard they’ve worked this year.”
This year’s tournament offers a new wrinkle — a neutral site. The closest the WAC has come to a neutral site in its 41 previous postseason tournaments was in 1971 and 1973 when the event was also held in Mesa. Arizona State, located in nearby Tempe less than 10 miles away, was in the league at the time. The closest WAC school to Mesa this week will be New Mexico State, which is about 300 miles away.
“We’ll see what it means,” said Powers of the neutral site. “Nobody knows. It’s never been done before.”
“I think that works in our favor,” said Kort of the neutral site. “Nobody has an edge and we have played very consistent baseball on the road this year (15-14-1). I think that will help bring us together and help us concentrate.”