Pitching dominant, offense struggles in first two weeks
Heading into the 2017 season, the mantra for Cougar baseball has been a simple one: get back into the playoffs after missing last year, and head to Omaha.
Now two weeks into the season, the No. 25 Cougars have amassed a 5-2 record, good for third in the American Athletic Conference. While the offense has sputtered at times, the pitching staff has been one of the best in the NCAA.
Coming off a 2016 campaign where the Cougar pitching staff ranked No. 2 in the nation in ERA, the Cougars are again relying heavily on their arms to carry them. They are boasting a 1.74 ERA through seven games, leading the AAC and ranked No. 5 in the NCAA.
The staff is led by junior left-hander Seth Romero. One of the top prospects heading into April’s draft, Romero has made his presence known this season, averaging 18.51 strikeouts per nine innings, good for second in the nation. His 24 total strikeouts in 11 2/3 innings also rank third in the country.
Coming into the season as the unquestioned ace, Romero took a different approach after being suspended to start the 2016 campaign. He dropped over 20 pounds and has taken more of a leadership role on the team, knowing the younger members are looking to him as a guide.
Though he has a career-high 3.09 ERA through two games, he has the ability to make this season one of the best for a Cougar pitcher, with a big chance coming Friday against top 10 ranked Cal State Fullerton.
Romero is just one of many key pieces as senior southpaw John King has been nearly unhittable so far. He is currently holding opponents to a .190 average while leading the team with a 1.12 ERA in 16 innings after a complete game, seven strikeout gem on Sunday.
In the bullpen, freshman left-hander Brayson Hurdsman leads the team with a 2-0 record in two appearances. The St. George, Utah, native hasn’t allowed an earned run this season, holding opposing batters to a .095 average with six strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings.
As good as their pitching staff has been, the Cougars are going to need some run support if they are going to win games.
Timely hitting needed
There has been no shortage of hits from the Cougar lineup so far. As a team, they are hitting .325/.400/.444 while leading the AAC with 79 total hits and averaging over 10 hits per game.
The problem goes deeper as those hits have only turned into 37 total runs. They are currently ranked below the top 150 in the nation in scoring, averaging only 5.3 runs per game.
The Cougars haven’t gotten timely hits when they needed them. They currently rank in the middle of the pack in the AAC when it comes to hitting with runners in scoring position. They have left 64 runners on base, and they rank next-to-last in the conference when it comes to grounding into double plays.
In addition, they have made too many outs on the basepaths, being picked off twice and caught stealing three times.
Reigning American freshman player of the year Joe Davis has been in a slump to start the season, hitting .290 with only three extra base hits and zero home runs. He has already grounded into three double plays, after totaling only eight in 59 games last season.
Newcomer Jake Scheiner currently leads the Cougars in seven offensive categories, hitting .423/.467/.769 with two home runs and seven RBIs. The junior college transfer is the only hitter above .400 with a near-even split of six singles and five extra-base hits.
Defensively, the Cougars have had some problems so far. They have a conference-high 14 errors and have only turned three double plays. Opponents are 5-9 against them when it comes to steals, while Cougar catchers rank next-to-last in the AAC with two passed balls.
Overall, this is a team that has the potential to be one of the best in the country at season’s end if they can put everything together.
Through two weeks, they have shown that the pitching staff is as advertised, but they need to complement that with some run support and timely hitting. If all of it comes together, a trip to Omaha and the College World Series isn’t out of the question.