Baseball Season Preview Breakdown

Zags look to supplement returning nucleus with talented newcomers


Feb. 13, 2018

It’ll be a bit of a new-look club when Gonzaga baseball first steps onto the diamond this year. Gone from 2017’s West Coast Conference champions are five everyday fielders and two starting pitchers. But 18 members of the squad that successfully defended their WCC title and are eager to make it three in a row.

“There are a lot of new faces, but there is a good nucleus of veterans, and there’s a lot of competition for the rest,” said Gonzaga head coach Mark Machtolf. “We have a lot of guys that are talented, and we’ll see what shakes down in the next few weeks and early spring.”

Four starting fielders return from last year’s squad, however: Jake Vieth, Gunnar Schubert, Troy Johnston, and Daniel Fredrickson. Furthermore, Branson Trube saw extended playing time at the end of the year after Fredrickson suffered an injury, and Jace VanDeBrake and Nick Brooks saw plenty of action in 2016.

“Some of the guys who’ve been around have to step up into some bigger roles this year,” said Gonzaga head coach Mark Machtolf. Guys like VanDeBrake, Trube, Johnston, Fredrickson, Schubert, Vieth…all those guys that were here last year and played a lot are going to have to be better. Some of them played pretty well and some of them played average, but they’re going to have to step up and be the leaders. And then you’ll get some production from some new guys, maybe some unexpected guys even, and then you’ll be pretty good.”

The pitching staff also looks a bit different after starters Eli Morgan and Justin Vernia and closer Wyatt Mills have each gone on to professional baseball. Their departures leave Daniel Bies, Calvin LeBrun and Justin Blatner as upperclassman arms, and the result will mean a lot of innings for a lot of young pitchers.

“On the mound, this will be the first year in a long time where we haven’t had that proven number one starter,” said Machtolf. “We have guys that can do it certainly, but we don’t have that guy who won 10 games last year. There’s a bunch of competition, and we’re still in the process where we’re going to find out about these guys. We have a decent idea on who’s going to start the first two days in Bies and Mac Lardner, but it’s wide open. We hope those guys take it and run with it, but we know we might lose some games until we figure out who’ll settle into certain roles. A lot of teams are in that position. We don’t have that experience in the mound, but we have guys who are capable. They’ll have to step up and earn some spots. A lot will be determined in the first few weeks to see how we’ll attack our league opponents.”

If there’s anything that makes Machtolf a bit more comfortable, it’s the Zags’ ability defensively. Schubert started every game last season at shortstop and figures to hold the position, and Vieth proved to be a sure glove at first. In the outfield, the Zags return Fredrickson, Trube and VanDeBrake, all who have seen valuable time in the field and at the plate.

“Our strength is our defense. We can catch the ball pretty well. Schubert was good at short last year, and Ernie Yake is solid at third; I like our left-side defense. We run well in the outfield. By far right now, that’s our strength. It’s our most proven part. Offensively we’ll be okay, but we need a lot of contributions from the veterans and some guys that haven’t done it. Pitching, we have some good arms, but not many guys who’ve had huge, significant roles even though they have some good innings.”

Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of the Bulldogs this season:

Outfield:

Despite two everyday starters from last year leaving, the Zags return a lot of experience in the outfield. Fredrickson, a redshirt junior is back from a wrist injury and ready to patrol right field again. Before his injury, Fredrickson was second on the squad with a .305 batting average. Trube, a senior that took over in right after Fredrickson’s injury, can slot in well at center after spending two years as a top-notch defensive replacement all over the outfield. In left, VanDeBrake figures to see plenty of playing time. Two years ago, VanDeBrake earned a spot on the WCC All-Freshman team after posting a .271/.333/.429 slash with 28 RBIs while starting many games in right.

“We have a good nucleus of an outfield. With Johnston there, and another good one in Isaac Barrera, and Jack Machtolf can play left or right. We’ll be solid in the outfield again.”

Infield:

The Zags lost half their starting infield from last season, but two seniors return to bolster the corps. Vieth will once again man first base, one year after smacking five home runs and 25 RBIs. Schubert will return to short, and he’ll form half of the double-play combination along with newly-minted second baseman Carson Breshears, a transfer from Oregon. Yake will make his college debut this season at third base.

“Yake is probably going to lead off for us,” said Machtolf. “He’s going to be an outstanding player, coming off his redshirt year. Breshears, has probably earned a shot at second, although Brendan McClary has played well, too. Elsewhere in the infield, Jack Krauel has been around awhile, and Michael Spellacy is a good-looking young freshman. Patrick Chung is another guy who’s played extensively. Nick Nyquist can play on the corners, and Brooks started on our Regional team two years ago. Carsen Negrete and Mason Marenco are also freshmen who could earn some time.”

Catcher:

After All-West Coast Conference Second Team catcher Jake Roberts graduated last year, someone new will don the gear for the Zags. Junior Austin Pinorini caught at Bellevue College last year and All-League Second Team honors, and he is the favorite for the starting job. Redshirt junior Slade Heggen, who also transferred from Oregon over the summer, will compete for time, too, as will sophomore Haydan Hastings and freshman Gabe Togia. Hastings played in seven games last season, starting two, and Togia earned All-Area accolades at Federal Way High School in Federal Way, Washington.

“Behind the dish you have Pinorini, from Bellevue who’s played well, and then you have another transfer from Oregon in Slade Heggen. Togia and Hastings also give you depth there.

Pitching Staff:

While the front end of the starting rotation will look different, familiar names will take the mound for Gonzaga. Bies, Lardner, and Casey Legumina each started at least six games for GU last year, and LeBrun pitched 48 innings last season, more than any other true reliever. Those four are bolstered by a plethora of young arms that will play key roles among the Bulldogs’ starting rotation and bullpen.

“Bies pitched some good innings last year, and Lardner did too as a freshman,” said Machtolf. “Legumina hasn’t really been healthy for an extended period of time, but he’s capable for sure. And then you have some new guys: Taylor Davis from junior college, and Alek Jacob, a freshman, will give us innings. Mason Millett has a good arm, and Keaton Knueppel is coming back off arm trouble and he’s capable. LeBrun has pitched a lot of innings in the past and will be expected to do so again, Blatner continues to improve, and Trent Schulte is coming off a redshirt year and is a great presence in the clubhouse. Matthew Henckel is a lefty that is capable, Colin Suter, too, is going to be a good arm for us, as is McKabe Cottrell.

Schedule:

The Zags face another tough slate in 2018. There are nine games against 2017 conference champions and seven against teams that reached at least the NCAA Regionals last season. Two-time champion Oregon State headlines the schedule for the first weekend of the season, and the Zags will also play non-conference road series at Rice and UC Irvine in additional to single games at Stanford, Oregon, and Seattle U. To round out the non-conference slate, Gonzaga travels to in-state rivals Washington and Washington State twice.

"This schedule gives us a great chance to test ourselves early against some national competition and prepare ourselves to compete for another WCC title," Machtolf said.

Gonzaga will play 19 games within the friendly confines of Patterson Baseball Complex and Washington Trust Field, including an early series against Milwaukee March 2-4. The WCC slate begins at home as the Zags host Pepperdine March 16-18, and Portland, Loyola Marymount, New Mexico State, and Santa Clara will also venture north for three-game series. Gonzaga’s lone home game against Washington State will take place April 17.

Gonzaga Article Link