Seasoned Bulldogs Look for More Success in 2017
Feb. 14, 2017
SPOKANE, Wash.—One year after a West Coast Conference regular season title and berth to the NCAA Regionals, the Gonzaga baseball team looks to do it again.
In 2017, there won’t be much change from last year’s core that earned the program’s first at-large berth. Six everyday starters return, including all three outfielders and the WCC Player of the Year in Jeff Bohling at third base. Eli Morgan, unbeaten in conference play, will take over Friday night pitching responsibilities, and the backend of the bullpen – Sam Hellinger and Wyatt Mills – remains intact to help the Zags close out games this season.
“We are experienced in a lot of places,” said Gonzaga head coach Mark Machtolf of his squad. “We have a good nucleus of older veteran players offensively that we feel good about. Obviously you have Bohling, who was MVP, Tyler Frost, who was First Team, and Justin Jacobs, who hit great. Sam Brown returns, who’s hit leadoff for us in the past, and Nick Brooks played well and had great power numbers when he played. Also, Jace VanDeBrake broke into the lineup last year and gave us some good swings. We expect those guys to be the nucleus.”
In the infield, Jacobs will resume duties at second base while Bohling will once again man the hot corner. Both are seniors with a strong bat: Jacobs hit .341 in WCC action last season, and Bohling posted a slash mark of .319/.382/.647 with 24 extra-base hits against conference foes. Brooks, a redshirt junior, should see plenty of swings at designated hitter after hitting .288 and slugging .519 in 20 WCC games last year. He can also provide backup at both third and first base when not already in the lineup. Starting at first base, junior transfer Jake Vieth will provide even more pop with the bat. A Rawlings All-American last season, Vieth hit seven home runs and tallied a 1.221 on-base plus slugging at Tacoma Community College. He was named the Northwest Athletic Conference’s MVP. Veterans Patrick Chung and Nick Nyquist will come off the bench either as an infielder or defensive replacement, as will freshmen Parker Price, Josh Stenberg, Ernie Yake, and Anthony Scalzo if they don’t redshirt.
To fill the hole at short stop left by Dustin Breshears, Machtolf expects Gunnar Schubert, Brendan McClary, and Jack Krauel to compete for time. Schubert is a juco transfer from Pierce College, where he earned a Gold Glove defensively and hit .371 as a sophomore. McClary returns home to Spokane after two years at Columbia Basin College. He led the NWAC with a .408 batting average and earned First Team All-League honors last season. Krauel, meanwhile, saw time in 11 games for the Bulldogs in 2016, driving in four RBIs on a double and a walk as a true freshman.
Behind the plate, Jake Roberts is the favorite to replace backstop Joey Harris. Roberts hit .278 during his first campaign as a Zag, seeing time in 34 games, starting 19 between catcher and second base. The redshirt senior from Plainfield, Ill., also reached base at a .385 clip, drawing 11 walks and scoring 26 runs. Incoming freshman Haydan Hastings and redshirt junior Zach Bonneau will provide backup for Roberts.
With all three starters returning, there’ll be tight competition between the Zags’ seven listed outfielders for playing time. Brown, a senior, has been a mainstay in the lineup since stepping on campus in 2013, and he took over leadoff duties last season. Frost earned First Team All-WCC honors last year after hitting .309 and slugging .483 in 55 games, while VanDeBrake hit .271 with 28 RBIs and 12 extra-base hits in his first year of play. Junior Branson Trube actually began 2016 as a starter, providing stellar defense to go along with a .237 average. He made 22 starts in center before getting injured at Washington. Also, Daniel Fredrickson is eligible to play after transferring from Washington State in 2015, and incoming freshmen Troy Johnston and Jack Machtolf could push for playing time as well.
“I feel good about our outfield,” said Machtolf. “Trube's a great defender. Strangely enough, he's right-handed and that actually helps us because all our outfielders are left-handed. He'll definitely vie for time, especially against left-handed pitching. Fredrickson has swung the bat as of late very well. He's another left-handed bat. We have a logjam in the outfield, that's why it's tough for those younger kids to get in. There’s a lot of competition out there, and we'll probably go with the hot bat. There are a couple of those players who are pretty established, but anything can happen.”
For the first time in four years, the Zags will have a new opening day starter in 2017. Morgan will assume the role as staff ace after Brandon Bailey was drafted in the sixth round of last year’s MLB Draft. The Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., native went undefeated in WCC action last year, going 8-0 with a 1.14 ERA. He earned First Team All-WCC honors as well.
“I feel good about Morgan,” said Machtolf of the junior right-hander, “he's pitched in huge games: he's pitched in a Regional, he's pitched in the WCCs. I don't think anybody could be more prepared than he is to lead the staff. He'll be fine.”
After Morgan, there’ll be plenty of competition for the remaining starts. Senior righty Justin Vernia figures to weigh heavily in that race after making six starts last year, including three weekend starts to begin 2016. The Issaquah, Wash., native is also coming off an All-Star summer where he posted a 0.58 ERA and won the Alaska Baseball League championship with the Mat-Su Miners. Junior southpaw Calvin LeBrun also made three starts last season, earning the nod in the WCC Championship finale. In all, LeBrun went 5-4 with a 4.97 ERA in 16 appearances. Both Justin Blatner and Daniel Bies could push for starts after making their GU debuts last season. Blatner started two games in 2016, pitching solidly in wins over Washington State. In the lefty’s first-ever start, he went 5.0 innings in Pullman, allowing just four hits and striking out five. Bies, meanwhile, is a 6-8 righty who made seven appearances and also pitched well in Alaska over the summer. Machtolf also believes that freshmen Casey Legumina, Mac Lardner, and Keaton Knueppel could settle into major roles, either as a starter or in relief.
“As far as that second or third starter, you could mention everybody. You’ve got Vernia, who threw the ball well in the summer and really well in the fall. You've got Bies as a guy who could potentially have an important role. LeBrun’s gotten innings for us in the past, and there’s new guys in Casey Legumina, who's very talented. All the freshmen are pretty talented; Legumina, Lardner, Knueppel. They'll be guys that have to settle into a role that's a little undefined right now. Blatner has done very, very well. He's another left-hander who could have numerous roles. His velocity is improving and he's had a good fall.”
The strong backend of last year’s bullpen returns in Hellinger and Mills. Mills will continue to hold down the closer role, where he saved seven games while posting a 2.65 ERA in 22 appearances. The side-winding righty was selected in the 17th round of the MLB Draft but elected to return for his senior season. Hellinger, meanwhile, will be the primary set-up man after leading the team in appearances last year. Another righty, Hellinger posted a 3-1 record and a 30/15 strikeout/walk ratio, and he was even better in the summer, earning Summer Collegiate All-America honors from Perfect Game for a 0.23 ERA while allowing just 13 hits in 24.0 innings.
The rest of the bullpen will be bolstered by those who don’t get a starting nod as well as Trent Schulte and Nate Odahl. Schulte is a low-angle lefty who saw innings sparingly last season. Odahl walked on to the Zags’ roster for this season. No matter who the Zags use out of the bullpen, though, they’ll look to continue the strong numbers from last year’s relievers. In 2016, Gonzaga’s pen posted a 13-6 record and 3.92 ERA in 195.0 innings of work. Relievers allowed just a .258 batting average to opponents, and they struck out 177 batters, helping the GU staff set a school record with 501 total strikeouts.
“In the bullpen, you feel pretty good. You have Hellinger, who was our setup guy that was outstanding all year. Out of 26 outings, he was good in 23 or 24 of them. We like him. And Mills is back as the closer. Schulte is another bullpen arm who's thrown a lot of strikes; he's a different left-hander. Odahl’s also a guy who could give us innings out of the bullpen.”
The Zags will play another tough slate in 2017, facing five NCAA Regional teams and a plethora of top-level programs, including Oregon State, UCLA, Fresno State, and UCSB, which reached the College World Series last year. In all, Gonzaga’s 2017 opponents have made 247 Regional appearances and 52 trips to Omaha. Also, nine of 2017’s foes ended last year ranked in the RPI’s top 75 and 11 in the top 100.
Gonzaga once again begins the year with a long road trip – four in Arizona, 12 in California – before opening WCC play at home March 17 versus Pacific. This season, however, the Zags will enjoy plenty of home cooking as they’ll play 23 games at Patterson Baseball Complex & Washington Trust Field, 18 of which will come against WCC foes. Gonzaga ends conference play with home series against Saint Mary’s, Loyola Marymount and BYU; the Bulldogs tied with the Gaels and the Cougars for the WCC regular season title last season. They also bring in-state foes Washington, Washington State, and Seattle U to Spokane to round out the home slate.
With so many key pieces returning from last year’s title team, there is plenty of excitement for the program for 2017. The Zags were recently picked No. 2 in the WCC Preseason Poll, and numerous media outlets have also tabbed them for a high finish in the always-competitive WCC. Machtolf figures his squad has the talent to make those predictions come true and more, it just will come down to the team’s chemistry.
“We talked about last year's chemistry, and this group, they were a big part of that,” he said. “We have some good leadership, and we have some really unselfish guys, which is key; they're our type of guys. That will be the difference as we saw last year. Everybody is talented, but the difference is sticking together and playing unselfishly and having each other's backs, and this team has a chance to be good at that. We get to travel to some amazing venues and play great teams early, and that helps our team bond during that first month of the season. Once we do that, we’ll be prepared to come back and compete well in the conference, but also compete well in the postseason, hopefully.”
Gonzaga begins 2017 with four games Feb. 17-19 in Surprise, Ariz. The Zags face Indiana in the season opener on Friday, Feb. 17 at 4:00 p.m. Pacific. All four contests take place at Surprise Stadium, the spring training home of MLB’s Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers.
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