The difference of only one run eliminated the baseball team from postseason play last season. If the Cougars had won, they would have hosted their first Super Regional since 2003.
After struggling in 2016, head coach Todd Whitting’s squad came back strong in 2017. Behind a powerful lineup and a dominant starting pitching rotation, led by then-sophomore Trey Cumbie, the Cougars won the American Athletic Conference regular season and conference tournament titles.
Their success saw the team host its second NCAA Regional in three years, but they could not advance further than the regional final. Now in his eighth season, Whitting must get his players back to speed and fill the holes left by the departed players if they hope to get to Omaha for the NCAA tournament.
“I think it’s a veteran bunch; it’s a really confident bunch,” Whitting said. “I think it’s one that is preparing and practicing with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder after not advancing to the NCAA tournament last year. But fall practice is a time to get better. It’s a time to learn about the new guys and see the development of your returning players.”
Filling a void
The group of Jake Scheiner, Corey Julks and Connor Wong performed well in their junior campaigns. Scheiner led the team in almost every offensive category — batting average, home runs, runs batted in and slugging percentage — and was named an All-American in the process.
Julks and Wong provided veteran leadership with their offensive productivity. Julks was second on the team in batting average, hitting .335, and Wong was second in home runs with 12.
All three were taken in the MLB Draft: Wong to the Dodgers, Scheiner to the Phillies and Julks to the Astros.
But the team is not completely deprived of its hitters. Juniors Grayson Padgett and Joe Davis return to the squad with the best batting averages from last season. Padgett hit .309 while Davis hit .299 and eight home runs. They will continue to be strong hitters for the Cougars, but the team needs sophomore infielders Lyle Lockhart and Jared Triolo to take the next step forward.
Lockhart and Triolo both saw action as freshmen. Each started more than 50 games for the Cougars and hit in the .270 range, placing them in the bottom third of the top eight hitters.
“Everybody’s really trying to step up their game,” Lockhart said. “Losing three of those five guys, vital guys to our lineup last year, everybody knows what we’re missing. A lot of guys are really trying to step up their power because that was a lot of our extra base hits.”
In year two, they will need to get more hits and make things a little easier for younger athletes making their way onto the squad.
The ace of the staff
When starting pitcher Seth Romero was suspended from the team last season after violations that included fighting with a teammate, the then-junior was leading the nation in strikeouts, and he was projected as a high pick in the MLB Draft.
It seemed the Cougars had lost their ace pitcher, but that was not the case. After being named a freshman All-American, Trey Cumbie took to the starting rotation his sophomore year and never looked back.
In more than 100 pitched, Cumbie compiled a 10-2 record with an ERA of 2.04. His 10 wins were the most for a pitcher since 2013. Along the way, he threw four complete games and struck out 82 batters.
Cumbie was named Pitcher of the Year in the American Athletic Conference before the Astros drafted him in the 38th round. Instead, he chose to return to Houston to play his junior year.
Cumbie’s return gives Whitting a clear ace on his staff and helps solidify his starting rotation for the year.
“You lock him down as the Friday night starter, (and) you start filling in the slots for Saturday and Sunday and start putting your bullpen together,” Whitting said.
An early look
The team concluded fall practice last week with the annual Red-White World Series. Following a scoreless draw in Game 1, the Red Team took the series by winning game two 5-3.
Game 1 was dominated by the pitching. Between the two teams, only three hits were allowed while the pitchers struck out 14 batters.
Cumbie and sophomore Fred Villarreal each pitched four innings without giving up a run. Villarreal started only three games last season but will be contending for a spot on the rotation this year.
Game 2 saw Aaron Fletcher take the mound for the Red team. Fletcher led the team with eight saves last season. He struck out four against the White team and gave up no runs in 3.2 innings.
But Lockhart had the best performance of the night, scoring three runs and hitting a triple and a home run while getting on base all four times.
After the game, Lockhart admitted he has been working on getting extra base hits and his performance Friday night showed his work is paying off. Needless to say, Whitting has been pleased with the overall performances on both sides of the ball.
“If you had to write a lineup after today, its pretty tough to get it down to nine guys because I think we’ve got 12 to 14 hitters that I feel really good about on any given day,” Whitting said. “But only nine guys can hit, and only one guy can pitch, so we’ll have a lot of competition in preseason practice getting it whittled down.”