Jason Nowa

Utes Baseball Overmatched Midway Through Season
Story and Photos by Jason Nowa

The inaugural year in the Pacific-12 Conference (Voices of Utah) for the University of Utah athletics has been one of transition and struggle.

When the university switched athletic leagues last year, the big story was all about difficulty– how challenging the change would be, and how tough it would be for the Utes to switch to new surroundings, higher pressures and a notch up in the quality of competition.

Critics and fans alike suggested the sport to take the biggest hit would be baseball. The baseball program was thrown into one of the best conferences in the country.

Warm climate states, including California and Arizona, have six Pac-12 member teams, and that warm weather certainly helps, giving teams a chance to play year-round.

The Baseball America preseason Top 25 rankings had five Pac-12 teams ranked to being the year. All five of those preseason ranked teams are currently still ranked in the Top 25 midway through the season.

One new addition from the Pac-12 to those rankings is the University of Oregon, currently ranked at 22 in the nation.

The others are University of Arizona at number four, UCLA number five, Stanford number six, Oregon State number 20, and Arizona State number 24.

A historic win for the Utes came when they swept a doubleheader on March 16 against USC for its first Pac-12 victories.

Their worst loss of the season so far came on March 30 at home against UCLA 16-0. The Utes have had two separate six-game losing streaks through the season and have won more than one game only once.

“This first half of our season hasn’t gone as we wanted, but we can only move forward and plan for the next game. The past is the past,” junior catcher Parker Morin said.

The team had only one home game through the first 22 games to start the season. They went 1-8 through their last home stand.

The team heads back on the road playing at California-Berkley before returning to Salt Lake City for a quick home stand starting on April 24.

The Utes are currently the only Pac-12 team with an overall losing record halfway through the season.

Pitching has been a problem this year. The team has only two starting pitchers who have thrown over 17 innings. Juniors Joe Pond and Brock Duke are the most consistent starters.

Pond is 2-5 in eight starts with an ERA of 5.62 in 40 innings. Duke is 2-1 in six starts while posting a 3.35 era in 40.1 innings. Duke has 25 strikeouts to 14 walks while Pond leads the team with 32 strikeouts and has 20 walks.

The team’s most reliable relief pitcher has been Mitch Watrous, who has pitched 24 innings posting a 2.25 ERA, lowest on the team with the most appearances.

Closer Tyler Wagner has been very shaky through the first half of the year. He has pitched 20 innings with a 4.87 ERA. Wagner on April 3 gave up five earned runs in the 9th inning of a devastating 9-6 loss to rival BYU.

“Our team needs better quality starts from myself along with our other pitchers so that our offense doesn’t have such big deficits to try and overcome,” said Junior starting pitcher Joe Pond.

The most valuable player through the first half of the season has been catcher Morin. Morin leads the team with a .347 batting average, 41 hits, and 22 RBIs. Morin as a catcher also has the duty of controlling the pitchers and knowing their strengths.

Short stop James Brooks, who is a returning starting senior from Melbourne, Australia, has been equally as consistent as Morin to help lead the offense. Brooks is batting .301 with six home runs and 18 RBIs in 37 hits. These two have held the team afloat offensively.

The two biggest disappointments offensively have been sophomore third baseman Trey Nielsen, and senior outfielder Shaun Cooper. Nielsen dominated Mountain West Conference pitching last year as he was honored as a Louisville Freshman All-American. Nielsen was one of the big threats in the lineup as he had nine home runs with 41 RBIs on the year. Nielsen’s production has tailed off considerably this year with a .233 batting average, no home runs, and only eight RBIs through 30 games that he has started.

When asked how the transition has been for the team to the Pac-12 conference Nielsen said, “It’s been a struggle. We are facing multiple future major league players on each team now as opposed to maybe one or none from any team we faced in the Mountain West last year. This Pac-12 league is the best in America.”

Cooper was picked as a preseason Louisville All-American slugger after the fabulous season he had last year with a .332 batting average, eight home runs, 43 RBIs in 67 hits. This year Cooper is only batting .205 with four home runs and 15 RBIs in 24 hits.

All the lost production from a potent offense a year ago could stem from the loss of two-time All-American first baseman C.J. Cron (Voices of Utah) to the major leagues. Cron became Utah’s first-ever, first-round draftee when he was selected 17th overall in the 2011 MLB Draft by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Opposing pitchers feared Cron, and often walked him.

The Utes finished in second place in the Mountain West conference last year with an overall record of 28-19.

The competition from switching leagues is a dramatic increase but it makes a team much different after losing two players to the major leagues in the same year.

Pitcher Rick Anton also was drafted a year ago. Anton was selected in the eighth round of the 2011 MLB Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Being on the team last year was awesome; we were so good with C.J. and Rick. And they made everyone else better on the team. It’s tough without them. We’ve had to find new leaders to look to and find that one guy to rally around,” said shortstop Brooks.

The Ute baseball (Voices of Utah) team is currently sitting in 10th place out of 11 participating schools, with only University of Colorado not having a baseball team.

Overall the Utes are 10-25, while 4-8 in conference play as of April 10. They are 1-9 at home, 7-13 on the road, and 2-3 at neural field sites. There are 21 games left in the season to try and improve their record.

Field of dreams: Sometimes a triple is a great shot

by LEWIS WALKER

What if you got paid to do what you love and have grown up doing your whole life? This is the life of Keenyn Walker, who by the age of 20 was drafted twice before signing a contract to play professionally in major league baseball.

“I thought he was crazy not to leave once he was selected out of high school. Not many people are that blessed,” said Jeff Myaer, head baseball coach at Judge Memorial High School in Salt Lake City.

Of all the odds and breaks in life, Walker has been blessed with his share.

Walker who is currently a part of the Chicago White Sox farm league in the Single-A organization is stationed in Kannapolis, N.C. playing for the Intimidators. His journey before making it there may have been a whirlwind to most folks.

As a senior at Judge Memorial, Walker was drafted by the Chicago Cubs, but he turned down that deal and moved on, choosing instead to attend Central Arizona College( CAC) in Coolidge, Ariz., one of the powerhouses for college baseball. After his freshman year at CAC, Walker was drafted again, this time by the Phillies. “It was crazy when I was in high school and got drafted, but then again just a year later is humbling,” Walker said.

Denying the offers from the big league left Walker, a center fielder, wondering if he would get another chance. “After my freshman year of college was over and I turned down another chance to play baseball, my dreams kind of became a blur,” he said. “I didn’t think anyone else would draft me again because I had turned down two teams already.”

Some doubted Walker might get another chance at his dream. “I was drafted when I was in college. I know how hard it is to have that opportunity come your way, but three times is out of this world,” Myaer said.

With many people watching from the outside, few stood strong in his corner, Walker said. Except for one. “My mom has been a huge part in this whole journey,” he said. “When I doubted myself she had the right words to put me back on track to complete what I had set out to do a long time ago.”

“Keenyn is someone who just loves to play baseball,” said his mother, Lori Walker, of Salt Lake City. “In baseball you have ups and downs that come easily and it can transfer over to life as well.”

June 6, 2011 is a day Walker will always remember. “That day I was just at home with my family watching the draft,” he said. “Teams just kept calling me and saying they may take me at this pick,” he said. Nervously walking around waiting for his name to be announced, Walker continuously ate snacks to calm his nerves, as well as talking and joking with the few family members who were present.

“It was a family thing,” Walker said.

After all the hoping and waiting, Walker’s blurry dreams have finally become a reality. Now 21, he was selected as the first overall pick in the 2011 MLB draft for the Chicago White Sox.

“I wake up and I feel like it’s a dream,” Walker said over the phone while training in Phoenix. Being a professional athlete comes with a lot of responsibility, as well as temptations.  “I have more money than my mother does now,” said Walker, laughing. But his mother thinks he’s doing just fine.

“I am proud of the decisions he made. Even though they were hard to make, he made the correct ones,” said Lori Walker. “It is crazy seeing my son become something he has wanted to become his whole life.”

“My schedule has been hectic, kind of,” Walker said. He wakes at 8 a.m., goes for a run and then heads to batting practice. He does interviews between ball games. There seems to be an endless number of items to autograph, such as rookie cards, helmets and photos. “Each day I sign about 500 items for people I don’t even know,” Walker said.

“I am so fortunate and blessed to be where I am right now,” Walker said. “This is so crazy. It still hasn’t hit me yet, even though I have already played six minor league games, moved my way up to the single A organization, and now in spring training.”

Although the process to the big leagues is a long bumpy road, things seem to be falling in place for Walker. “I guess the third time is a luck charm,” he said.

Photo credits: Clockwise from top left, Megan Wallo: Keenyn Walker: Central Arizona College, Athletics: Jim Shipman.