After his team’s most recent scrimmage, BYU baseball coach Mike Littlewood walked through the tunnel back to his office and saw something he liked.
“We had six to eight guys hitting off a tee or soft toss to get in some extra work,” he said. “They are doing that when no one is watching them and that’s what it takes. That’s when they improve.”
The Cougars open their 2021 campaign with an eight-game swing in Texas starting Saturday and they can’t wait to get started.
“We feel like, as an entire program, we’re blessed to get on the field and play,” Littlewood said. “We’re trying to stay safe and hoping everybody else is safe as well. I really believe the attitude of the guys has changed since last March. It’s taken a little bit of time for them to realize how lucky they are to walk on the field every day and play baseball. Not many people get to do it and I don’t think they will take it for granted anymore.”
Where were we?
BYU was a very young club in 2020 but was still picked to win the West Coast Conference title by the league’s coaches. The Cougars struggled at the plate early, hitting only .204 as a team in preseason against a very difficult schedule. BYU’s strong pitching staff kept them in games and helped piece together a 7-9 record. The Cougars were preparing to open the 2020 WCC season at home against Loyola Marymount when COVID-19 shut down all college athletics.
Two of BYU’s pitchers signed free agent deals: Justin Sterner (Florida Marlins) and Jarod Lessar (New York Yankees).
Let’s try this again
The Cougars return most of their position players from 2020 and have added a few transfers to help bolster the lineup. The long offseason has helped the youngsters become more seasoned.
“In a normal year guys get 56 college games then play summer ball where they get 60 more games,” Littlewood said. “Hitters will get 500 to 600 at-bats. Most of our guys had under 50 at-bats last season. Our hitters are super lucky to be facing pitchers every day who are as good or better than they will face in games. For the most part we won’t be surprised by any pitching that we see.”
Hayden Leatham, a junior college All-American at College of Southern Idaho in 2019, will lead off and play in the outfield for the Cougars. Senior Mitch McIntyre will play center field and bat second in addition to getting some pitching duties. Junior Austin Demming, who had a home run and a double off the wall in the team’s most recent scrimmage, will play third base and bat third. Junior Josh Cowden will DH and bat fourth. The first base job is a battle between junior college transfer Jacob Wilk and Georgetown transfer Freddy Achecar.
Former Lone Peak and Salt Lake Community College standout Cole Gambill is an athletic left-handed hitter who is expected to produce some big results for the Cougars. Former Spanish Fork standout Andrew Pintar, who led BYU in hitting last season, will play second base and bat seventh. Steady senior Abe Valdez will catch and bat eighth and former Pleasant Grove standout Brock Watkins, the Daily Herald Player of the Year in 2019, will handle shortstop duties.
“I feel like there are no easy outs in the lineup,” Littlewood said. “To me those 6-7-8-9 hitters are just as important as the top of the order. Those guys need to be productive.”
From the hill
Lilttlewood believes pitching will again be a strength of the team.
“I really love our pitching staff,” he said. “We probably threw six or seven guys at our most recent scrimmage and all but one of them sat in the low to mid 90s. Mikade Johnson, big 6-foot-5 closer out of Atlanta, touched 97. I feel like we have 12 or 13 good options. Normally in college you rely on seven or eight guys, nine if you’re lucky.”
The starting rotation will include a mix of former Spanish Fork lefty Cy Nielson, Jack Sterner, Bryce Robison, former Pleasant Grove righty Easton Walker and likely Boston Mabeus as the Monday starter.
Littlewood really likes his bullpen as well. Tyson Heaton, Cooper McCann, Reid McLaughlin and former Lehi standout Drew Zimmerman will see action there.
On the road again
As is typical, BYU will start with the first month of the season playing on the road. The Cougars open in Texas this weekend with four games against Texas State and four more with the University of Texas. BYU then travels to Oregon State for three games before returning home to face the University of Utah on March 11 at Miller Park.
“I look at our schedule and I think ‘excited’ is the wrong word,” Littlewood said. “Probably ‘anxiety filled’ would be more accurate. It’s going to be a tough first month for us.”
BYU was picked to finish fourth in the preseason WCC coaches poll behind Pepperdine, Gonzaga and San Diego. The Waves picked up six first-place votes, Gonzaga two and San Diego and BYU one each.
“I want our players to be tough, and we talk about that a lot,” Littlewood said. “We have a lot of good, nice guys on the team. I tell them they can still be nice but they also have to have toughness. When they walk onto the field I want them to change personalities. They need to want to kick the other team to the end of the world and just get after it. We need to develop toughness on the mound, at the plate and overall as a team.”