BYU Milwaukee baseball

BYU's Brock Hale scores on a passed ball in the third inning against the Milwaukee Panthers at Larry H. Miller Park on Thursday, March 7, 2019.

The BYU baseball team is trying to go from first to worst to first.

The Cougars reached the pinnacle two seasons ago, winning the West Coast Conference Tournament with a stunning five-game run to reach the NCAA Regionals.

Last season, with a good number of returners, BYU stumbled during league play and tied for last place in the conference.

Picked to finish sixth this season, the Cougars face projected league champion Gonzaga at Miller Park for a three-game set to open WCC play beginning Thursday.

BYU coach Mike Littlewood and his staff revamped the roster for 2019 and the Cougars have responded with a stellar start, finishing the preseason with a 12-3 record. Heading into WCC play, BYU has won 10 of 11 games and six straight.

“Honestly I told them to just keep doing what they’re doing,” Littlewood said. “We’ve been handling three facets of the game – clutch hitting, good defense and we’re pitching it well. If we keep doing that we’ll win a lot of close games. Our pitching staff has been giving us an opportunity to win. We have a lot of depth in our pitching staff.”

The Cougars are hitting .296 as a team but also boast an ERA of 2.98, which leads the WCC and is 27th in the country. Last year the team’s ERA was 4.48 and it hasn’t been below 4.00 since the 2011 season.

“We’re just pounding the strike zone,” Littlewood said. “We don’t have an overpowering guy but we’re throwing a lot of strikes and throwing strikes with multiple pitches. We’re making the other team beat us and not giving games away.”

Littlewood said his experienced players have stepped up to show the way and create the kind of winning culture that was needed to return to the top of the standings.

“The biggest thing is the leadership from our upperclassmen,” he said. “They saw what happened last year. A lot of them were here for the regional team. They were able to see how great the culture can be or how negative it can be. The older guys have set the tone for the younger guys.”

Gonzaga comes into Provo with a 6-8 record but the Bulldogs schedule has been solid with competitive games against ranked teams such as Texas A&M and Southern Miss. Gonzaga is coming off a 5-3 win at Utah on Tuesday.

Thursday’s game figures to be a pitcher’s duel. BYU sends out its No. 1 starter, senior Jordan Wood, who has compiled a 2-0 record with a 1.88 ERA, striking out 21 batters in 24 innings. His opponent will be Casey Legumina, who is also 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 24 innings.

So far, Littlewood has liked what he’s seen from his team.

“I learned they are going to compete and they’re not going to quit,” Littlewood said. “The guys are getting better every week and learning the game. We’re still pretty young in Division I experience and in at-bats, but the guys have a real need and urge to get better every day.”

As league play begins, five teams have ten or more wins and seven have winning records.

“Since I’ve been in the league we’ve won it a couple times and we’ve tied with Gonzaga a few times,” Littlewood said. “It’s going to a challenge. We are going to face a very good pitching staff, they play good defense and they are going to hit one through nine. It’s going to be two evenly-matched teams. I think a break here or there could determine every single game.”

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