Major changes highlight infield, pitching staff
When fans crowd into Cougar Field one month from today for UH’s home opener against Northeastern, a first look at the faces on the infield could cause spectators to double-check their program roster and for third-year head coach Todd Whitting, that’s a good thing.
“We return one player from the infield and catcher position and that is (senior) Casey Grayson, who missed three quarters of the season due to a hamstring injury,” Whitting said.
“I’m excited about that. We’ve upgraded and we also have a more athletic team. We are bigger, stronger more physical. A lot of that is due to recruiting better athletes and developing those athletes.”
A season ago, arguably the 18-35-1 program’s biggest culprits’ crimes came on the mound. UH pitching ranked 228th (out of 291) nationally in team ERA (5.40), tied for 181st in walks allowed (187) and finished 147th in strikeouts per nine innings (6.6). To counter these struggles, the Cougars made a big splash by hiring renowned coach Frank Anderson to fill pitching duties.
“To me, he is the equivalent of signing a first round recruit. To this point, he has made a major impact. He brings instant credibility because of his track record, so he has the attentive ear immediately,” Whitting said.
“The kids are responding well, the pitching staff is extremely excited to have him, as is the rest of the coaching staff and athletic department.”
The Cougars are reeling from three consecutive losing seasons in conference play and have not participated in an NCAA Regional since 2008. Still for Grayson, one of the team’s five seniors, the infielder remains focused on the future while not forgetting the past.
“We’ve got a brand new team pretty much — not many returnees,” Grayson said. “We look at it as it’s the past, but for us returnees, you don’t want to have the season you did last year. It’s fuel to have a better season this year.”
Of the countless new faces gracing this year’s roster, Grayson encourages fans to keep an eye on junior infielder Frankie Ratcliff, a transfer via Pensacola State College and University of Miami. Ratcliff and the Cougars face the task of continuing to help rebuild a program with expectations set for Omaha, a place the team has not advanced to since 1967.
“I knew that when I took over the job, we needed mass overhaul. Not only in players, but in the way we operate,” Whitting said.
“From a recruiting standpoint to the fans and from a donor involvement standpoint, everything involved with the baseball program needed to be fixed. I wanted to be in the College World Series during the first season I came here. I see a lot of positives currently in our program, and I’m really anxious to see us play.”
Whitting and his staff are also working to finalize the starting rotation with seven or eight pitchers in the mix for the weekend slots. This also includes 2012 Friday senior starting pitchers Austin Pruitt, Matt Hernandez and junior Cypress College transfer Daniel Poncedeleon.
The Cougars are not shying away from the importance of their corps of relievers, either.
“We have a ton of competition this year. We are also focused on our pitching the back end in the bullpen,” Whitting said.
“We have had lack of depth, and it has made us truly struggle. The end of the game has been a big problem for us, but that is something we need to build on for this year.”
UH opens the season Feb. 15 at Cougar Field with a three-game slate against Northeastern. Other home highlights include visits from Texas on March 19, Harvard on March 20, Seton Hall from April 12 to 14 and Rice from April 19 to 21.
“I feel very confident in the system we have both offensively, defensively and even with our pitching staff,” Whitting said.
“Just as we’ve been in past couple of years, we will continue to be very aggressive on the bases, at the plate and hopefully play great defense. Any great team that I have been a part of, we could always pitch and play defense; they will be the two biggest areas of improvement to be successful.”