UH baseball feels rejuvenated for 2022 season
After starting off 10-5, the 2021 UH baseball season quickly spiraled out of control, resulting in the Cougars’ lowest single-season win percentage, at .358, since 2012.
The struggles were across the board. Offensively, the UH baseball team batted a mere .236 as a team and struck out 456 times compared to drawing just 154 walks. On the mound, the pitching staff combined for a 5.32 ERA, 1.58 WHIP and allowed opponents to hit .279 off them.
But 2021 is in the past, and there is a strong belief within the UH baseball program that because of the additions to the roster and coaching staff, 2022 will be a season where the Cougars return to the standard of being a top 25 program.
“Everything that we’ve proven in practice is that we’re capable to play against anybody and beat anybody,” said senior first baseman Ryan Hernandez. “I think that is still going to be the standard here and it won’t change despite the bad year we had this past year.”
Following the conclusion of the 2021 season, UH head coach Todd Whitting knew he needed to make changes to his staff in order to bring fresh perspectives and new ideas to the program.
To address the pitching problems, Whitting brought in Kyle Bunn who had found tremendous success the previous three seasons at Middle Tennessee. Most notably, the Middle Tennessee pitching staff allowed the fewest walks per nine innings (2.42), ranked third nationally in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.62) and 10th in WHIP (1.22) under Bunn in 2021.
Whitting also brought in Ross Kivett as the program’s hitting coach. Kivett had spent the past four seasons at Tennesse and helped lead the Volunteers to Omaha for the College World Series in 2021.
With the addition of Bunn and Kivett to the coaching staff, a new type of energy began to circulate within the walls of the UH baseball program.
“There’s a sense of newness in the program with two new assistant coaches, as important as they are,” Whitting said. “It rejuvenated the returning players and myself just to have some new blood in here and some new ideas of ways to do things.”
Along with the new coaching staff, the Cougars added some key additions from the transfer portal.
Some of the new players Whitting highlighted included Zach Arnold, a third baseman that spent the previous two seasons at LSU, catcher Anthony Tulimero from Kansas and multiple pitchers led by right-handers Logan Clayton, Nathan Medrano and southpaw Kyle LaCalameto.
“The guys are very confident with how we’re going to play this year,” said junior shortstop Ian McMillan. “There’s a swagger (about us).”
Kivett has felt a strong bond between the team since the moment he stepped on campus.
“As far as camaraderie, you don’t want to force it,” Kivett said. “You don’t force chemistry. If you go on a date with someone, you kind of feel it right away or you don’t. And I thought I felt (chemistry) with this group right away because they all share a common bond that they want their goal to be to win more games.”
Pounding the zone
While the roles that each member of the UH pitching staff will fill are still up in the air, Whitting knows one thing is for certain about his group on the bump.
“It’s a deep staff, I can tell you that,” Whitting said.
With veterans like Ben Sears, Derrick Cherry and Jaycob Deese back and the addition of a bunch of arms that those within the UH baseball program are excited about, Bunn has a lot of options to work with.
Consistent strike-throwing and competing on each and every pitch are the pillars that Bunn has emphasized to his group throughout the offseason so that he can get the most out of the Cougars’ pitching staff each and every time they take the bump.
“The identity that I want them to have and to embrace is that we’re going to try to smother hitters with strikes,” Bunn said. “I’ve always tried to pride myself on guys throwing a ton of strikes, filling up the strike zone and competing. If you’re out there and you’re throwing competitive strikes and then you’re competing, you’re always giving yourself an opportunity to win the game.”
If the UH pitchers go out and do the job on the mound, then Bunn said everything else falls on him as he is charged with managing which arms to use in specific situations, on a game-by-game basis, to give the Cougars the best chance to win.
“I think we have a lot of talent and the key to us being successful this year from my job’s standpoint will be making sure I’m putting the right pieces of the puzzle together to make us the most efficient and most competitive (pitching staff),” Bunn said. “That being said, hopefully, you’re building something that is going to be a winning product.”
While there are still many things to iron out in terms of how certain arms are used and some of the pitchers’ roles might change as the season progresses, the UH hitters have experienced firsthand the potential that this team’s pitching staff has.
To McMillan, one of the best parts of the season beginning is that he doesn’t have to face the UH arms on a regular basis because he knows how frustrating that can be.
“They’re nasty,” McMillan said. “They’ve got really good stuff and they throw a lot of strikes too.”
Attacking at the plate
The biggest problem that haunted the Cougars at the plate in 2021 was how heavily reliant the offensive production was on two guys, Hernandez and Steven Rivas.
This year, while there is not a ton of depth offensively, the lineup one through nine is as good as Whitting has seen since he took over at UH in 2010.
“I think we’re as talented offensively as we’ve ever been,” Whitting said. “The key for us will be to stay healthy.”
Along with the talent at the plate in the starting lineup, Kivett has brought a new offensive philosophy to the UH baseball team, which is characterized by being aggressive at the plate.
“(Kivett’s) got new philosophies. I’m really excited about what he’s brought to the table,” Whitting said. “He’s young. He’s energetic. I really like the style of baseball that he’s brought to our program.”
Kivett compared the way he wants his hitters to approach each at-bat as similar to a Chip Kelly spread offense in football.
“My biggest belief is that we’re going to play offense offensively,” Kivett said. “The other thing is we’re not going to play with any fear. We’re going to let it rip. I think a lot of coaches fall under the same category as their players. They coach with tension or not to lose instead of letting your best punch go and playing it for nine innings.”
Hernandez, one of the team’s vocal leaders and the best hitter for the Cougars each of the past two seasons, has fully bought the team’s new hitting coach into the offensive style.
The 6-foot-4-inch right-handed slugger believes that UH adapting Kivett’s philosophy will lead to a big increase in production at the plate as a team.
“I think our team is going to be much more consistent this year,” Hernandez said. “I think it comes down to who’s leading us in front in our hitting and our head coach and just staying confident and knowing what we can do.”
The biggest emphasis Kivett has put on is hitters over the offseason is being able to hit the fastball as a way of building a solid foundation for the Cougars at the plate.
Kivett believes if UH hitters aggressively hunt the heater, then it will create a lot of opportunities for the Cougars to consistently get runners in scoring position and plate runs, something that was a major struggle last season.
“What we want to establish is a team that can hit the fastball,” Kivett said. “We’re going to be aggressive on the heater. We do work on it and we do a lot of two-strike hitting because that’s the easiest way to build an identity of an offense.”
Proving themselves right
While UH was picked to finish seventh in the American Athletic Conference based on the preseason coaches poll, the team doesn’t give much attention to what the outside says.
For the Cougars, 2022 is not about proving doubters wrong. Rather, it’s about proving the belief they have in themselves.
Hernandez said a lot was learned through last season’s struggles that he thinks will propel the Cougars in a positive direction this year.
“That’s been our motto for this whole year. Focus on the next 200 feet, focus on the game in front of us, focus on the practice that day,” Hernandez said. “I think that learning from the past is what’s going to help us in the future.”
UH baseball has an opportunity to send a strong message from the jump, as the Cougars start off the new campaign taking part in the MLB4 Tournament in Scottsdale, Arizona. There they will likely face one of the nation’s top pitchers in Cal’s Josh White on opening day, followed by taking on San Diego State and concluding the tournament facing eighth-ranked TCU.
The excitement within the program is palpable, as the Cougars can’t wait to showcase the high level of baseball that they believe they are capable of producing to the rest of the country.
“Everybody is just very confident in the work we put in and what we think we’re going to get out of it,” McMillan said. “We’re looking to get back to the expectation of the program and we’re excited to show it to everyone on Feb. 18.”