Whitting hopes infield changes make UH’s defense better

Infield and pitching changes highlight the Cougars' offseason | File photo/The Daily Cougar

Infield and pitching changes highlight the Cougars’ offseason | File photo/The Daily Cougar

In the second inning of his first game as a freshman at Iowa Western Community College, redshirt sophomore Chris Waylock was forced to make an immediate shift from second baseman to shortstop after the team’s starter became injured.

As a new addition to the Cougars’ program and with more time to prepare, Waylock has spent his off-season transitioning to his new home: third base.

“Wherever a coach tells me to play it, I’m going to play because I want to be on the field. This is a new experience, but I’m going to play the best I can at that position,” Waylock said.

“(During) the first week or two, I just sat up on the infield and let the ball get drilled to me. I wasn’t that great in the beginning, but after a week and a half or two weeks, it felt normal to me. It feels like I’ve been playing there for a while now.”

Waylock is part of a UH infield that returns just one starter and is looking to rebound from allowing 97 errors a season ago, ranking last in Conference USA in fielding percentage (.955). For head baseball coach Todd Whitting, a former infielder, the answer to the Cougars’ woes is a combination of two areas.

“You never see a team that has great pitching and bad defense (statistically), or bad pitching and great defense (statistically); it just doesn’t work that way,” Whitting said. “The last couple of years, our strikeout numbers have not been very high so there are a lot of balls being put into play and a lot more chances to make errors.”

While an associate head coach at TCU, Whitting’s squad set a school record with a .976 fielding percentage in 2008 and ranked within the top 10 in that category for two consecutive years.

Waylock — who was named the Region Defensive Player of the Year the same season of his sudden shift to shortstop — is expected to play an intricate role in the squad’s defensive resurgence.

“(In the past), a lot of other people out there and a lot of other teams and coaches doubted this team,” Waylock said. “(They think) that we’re not that talented or gifted, and this year we’re going to be. We have great chemistry as a team, and we set high goals. One of our goals is to come out and win 30 games more than we did last year.”

Elsewhere in the infield, the Cougars find themselves with five new prospects at the catching position, three of which are freshman. UH was also successful this off-season in adding junior college transfers Caleb Barker and Daniel Smith.

“We did a great job through the recruiting process of finding what we thought was a top-flight junior college catcher in Caleb Barker and a couple of great high school catchers,” Whitting said. “Those guys have provided me a depth and talent at the position. It’s going to be real competitive at the top end of that.”

“Barker is a veteran guy who has been around. (Jacob) Campbell has been lights out to this point with limited action; he’s coming off arm surgery, so I’m not sure exactly when he’s going to be 100 percent, but I’m anxious to see him as well.”

Despite all of the new faces, Whitting is excited about the team’s shortstop position in particular, where depth is not expected to be a concern for the Cougars.

“The thing I am fortunate to have is three pure shortstops,” Whitting said, referring to Waylock, junior transfer Frankie Ratcliff and freshman Josh Vidales. “What is a weakness on most ball clubs is the depth at shortstop, and we have great depth there.”

With just more than three weeks until opening day, confidence is riding high for the Waylock and the new-look Cougars.

“This year, we’ve been talking about day one and the season every day we’ve led up to that,” Waylock said. “We don’t have a doubt in our mind that we’re going to dominate that day, dominate that week or dominate that month. We owe it to our coaches and ourselves too.”

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