Aggie baseball looking for the next step forward

Aggie baseball looking for the next step forward

Photo Credits: Justin Han / Aggie. UC Davis pitcher Jake Spillane (31,right) pitches to Brock Rudy (2,left) of Utah during a game against the University of Utah on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020 at Dobbins Stadium in Davis, Calif.

Questions abound for UC Davis in 2020 season

The UC Davis baseball team is embarking on another long season in the Big West Conference with the hope of taking a step forward after a fifth-place finish last year. Although the Aggies ended with a 19-31 record, the team made some very positive strides and held its own against top competition. 

Against a pair of traditional Big West powerhouses, UC Davis swept Long Beach State at home and went on the road to take a series from Cal State Fullerton. Additionally, the Aggies took down Stanford, a team that advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals, on their home field early in the season. 

“These are all things that are steps forward for us as a program, but when you look at the ultimate measure, which is that record at the end of the year, we’ve still got work to do,” said Head Coach Matt Vaughn.

It is no secret the program has struggled to win games on a consistent basis since moving up to the Division I level in 2008. After a run to the NCAA Tournament in that inaugural season, the Aggies have enjoyed just one winning season in the past 11 years and have won under 40% of their games since Vaughn took over in 2011. This year, the team was once again selected to finish in last place in the Big West, according to the league’s preseason coaches poll. 

Vaughn, a UC Davis graduate in 1992, is entering his ninth season at the helm. Despite his four-year contract extension received in late 2017, Vaughn knows that the program simply has not made enough progress under his watch.

“Our goal is to get into the top of our conference and be a competitor for a conference title every year and we haven’t been there,” Vaughn admitted. “For the most part, we’ve performed above where everyone thinks we’re going to finish, but still not good enough. We’re still fighting to get there and every year there’s signs of it.”

Every so often, it looks like UC Davis is on the verge of turning the corner, but a breakthrough in success just hasn’t happened. It’s not as though the Aggies haven’t displayed some supreme talent across the diamond, as UC Davis players have been selected in the MLB draft for three years running, but this hasn’t translated to wins on the field. 

Off the field, there have been positive developments with fundraising and facility improvements in the last year, culminating in the construction of a $1 million batting cage beyond the right field line. 

“We’re getting there,” Vaughn said. “We still need to do lights and some sort of clubhouse for our guys, but the batting cages have been a tremendous step forward for us. A great group of donors made that happen for us and our administration helped us get that done too.”

The skipper firmly believes he has the full backing of Director of Athletics Kevin Blue and the rest of the administration, so the only thing left to do is win ball games. 

“The support and resources are here,” Vaughn said. “Are they what our opponents have? Probably not, but we’re getting there and we have everything we need to win games. We just have to find ways to put it together.”

Over the years, the program has struggled from a severe deficiency of effective arms on the pitching mound. UC Davis typically scores enough runs to win, but has failed to avoid long innings in the field and stop the bleeding once things start to unravel. The pitching staff has sported a team ERA over five in three of the past four seasons.

Vaughn says some of the problems are a result of his players trying to balance the demands of such an academically prestigious university like UC Davis.

“Our guys are right in there with every other student at UC Davis and I think that makes it a little different,” Vaughn said. “I think our guys have to grind a little harder in the classroom than maybe some other programs so that presents a challenge in itself.”

Given those rigorous academic requirements and the annual struggles of the program on the field, the coaching staff has been limited in regards to which players it can lure to UC Davis recruiting. When it comes to pitching, Davis is simply not a destination for most of the young flamethrowers coming out of high school at the moment. 

“We need guys that can pitch,” Vaughn stated. “If I’m being honest about it, we’re not getting the 90 mile per hour guys right now. We’re going to get there at some point, but we’re not getting them right now so [we] have to develop them a little bit more and have guys that have an idea how to change speeds, hit their spots and stay down in the zone. Just guys that can really pitch, not guys that are just throwing hard.”

UC Davis does return two of its top-three most used pitchers from last season, including Friday starter Brett Erwin. The third-year right hander led the staff in ERA and wins in over 70 innings of work in 2019. 

Overall, Vaughn believes his guys will do a better job of throwing strikes this season and give the team a chance to consistently win. He hopes a frontloaded non-conference schedule at Dobbins Stadium will allow the pitchers to get comfortable and develop confidence before the rigors of the Big West arrive in late March. The stadium is often regarded as one of the toughest places in the nation to hit home runs, due to its spacious alleyways and high fences. 

In the field, UC Davis welcomes back a strong core of position players and its top four hitters from last year.

“It’s a good feeling to have that experience back and if you watch us practice, you see those guys are a little more ahead, so it sets a good example and benchmark for the younger guys to strive for,” Vaughn said.

Junior shortstop Tanner Murray is a superstar in the making, having already taken home Big West Freshman Player of the Year and All-Big West First Team honors in his first two years on campus. He enjoyed a season-long hot streak in 2019, batting .364 with a .919 OPS and leading the offense in hits, runs, RBI’s and doubles. 

Multiple media outlets are predicting Murray to wind up as the Big West Player of the Year in 2020 and he has drawn a lot of buzz as a draft prospect as well.

Murray recently participated in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League in Massachusetts, a summer league showcasing the top talent in the nation. The league is renowned for hosting over 1,000 players that have ended up playing in the MLB. 

In the outfield, the Aggies will rely on the leadership of senior center fielder Cooper Morrison and redshirt-junior right fielder Alejandro Lara. Both players hit over .300 last season and were mainstays in the heart of the lineup along with Murray. 

Behind the plate, the team is ecstatic to bring back redshirt-senior catcher Logan Denholm, who can be relied upon to produce runs as well as handle a staff of young pitchers. 

“We were lucky to get him back,” Vaughn explained. “He should’ve gotten signed last year and he didn’t, which was a boom for us. It’s nice to have that guy because he’s basically another pitching coach on the field. He handles so much stuff that a coach normally handles and he calls his own game. He’s very studious about the game and is a great leader.”

Outside of the core of returning studs, there are many new players on this roster, including nine freshman and five sophomores. Some players, like sophomore second baseman Jalen Smith and junior third baseman Kyler Arenado, will open the season as starters and receive more playing time than they have ever had as Aggies. Elsewhere, first baseman Jonah Henrickson, a freshman from Davis High School, will be immediately thrown into the mix from the get-go. 

Vaughn has stressed the importance of other less experienced players stepping up and providing much-needed depth at each position. Over the course of a 56-game schedule, it’s inevitable that injuries and cold streaks will crop up, so bench players will have to make an impact. So far, the entire 35-man roster, regardless of age or experience, has been meshing very well throughout the fall and winter. 

The coaching staff is taking steps to mitigate the burdens of the long season, in hopes of keeping players fresh and avoiding injuries. Division I baseball presents one of the toughest schedules of any college sport, especially in schools on the quarter system where players actively participate for all of winter and spring quarter in addition to six weeks of fall quarter. 

“This year, we’re trying to go into the season just a little bit healthier and more rested,” Vaughn said. “We’re backing off on practices a little bit and when we do something well in practice, we move onto the next thing. We’re trying to find little mental breaks here and there during the season that help you get through it. It’s a constant, ongoing challenge for us as a coaching staff and as a program to maintain that balance for not only good physical health, but good mental health.”

UC Davis will look to carry the momentum of taking its opening series over a Pac-12 opponent into this weekend’s four-game set versus North Dakota State. First pitch at Dobbins Stadium is set for 2 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, before a doubleheader on Saturday beginning at 11 a.m.

Written by: Brendan Ogburn — sports@theaggie.org