Welcome back to Thursday Thoughts. Although this summer did not see as much turnover as the summer of 2021, (i.e., Rick Vanderhook retiring, an entire new coaching staffed named and a number of players leaving via graduation, the MLB Draft and the transfer portal, etc.) this past summer did see some changes.
Entering Jason Dietrich’s second year at the helm of the storied and tradition rich Titan Baseball program, the Titans will enter the 2023 campaign with a number of notable returners but also missing key contributors from last year’s squad that went 22-33 overall and 14-16 in the Big West.
The biggest contributors notably missing include Jackson Lyon (signed a free agent contract with the New York Yankees) and Cameron Repetti (Transferred to Arizona State). Jason Brandow and Michael Weisberg, two others that participated in Senior Day 2022 but were eligible to return due to additional eligibility granted via the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season, did not return.
Three Titans that could have left via the MLB Draft or free agency opted to forego professional opportunities and return to campus. Zach Lew is now the gray beard of the team at age 23 and will turn 24 in May 2023. Lew is joined by Catcher Cole Urman and Outfielder/1st Baseman Caden Connor as the returning position players that could have left prior to exhausting their eligibility.
Other changes occurring over the summer include a shake up within the coaching staff. The top three coaches remained in their respective positions, Jason Dietrich as Head Coach, Josh Belovsky the Assistant Coach & Recruiting Coordinator and Neil Walton as Assistant Coach. 2022 Volunteer Assistant Coach Danny Bennedetti has chosen to pursue other interests while Jake Pavletich, serving in the Director of Player Development role was elevated to the Volunteer Assistant role. Connor Spencer takes over as Director of Player Development and Garrett Fisher takes over for Jason Murrietta in the Director of Baseball Operations spot.
Despite the changes on the field and in the coaches offices, the Titans took on the Washington State Cougars in a Double Header scrimmage last Saturday, playing two scheduled 8-inning games. We attended both games (until it got cold and rainy in the 6th inning of Game 2) and examined how the Titans could shape up in 2023 that included some good, some bad and even some ugly aspects.
Saturday, October 22, 2022 vs. Washington State: WIN – 2-0 (8 innings)
Saturday, October 22, 2022 vs. Washington State: WIN – 3-1 (7 innings)
Preview of Potential Regulars
Game 1 of the double header had the look and feel of opening day complete with players on both sides wearing their regular uniforms, pre-game line-up announcements and introductions, playing of the national anthem, etc. Due to this, Coach Dietrich may have tipped his hand as to which players may start on Friday night when the Titans open the 2023 season, presumably vs. Stanford at Goodwin Field on February 17, 2023.
Game 1 Starters
Pitcher: Tyler Stultz
Catcher: Cole Urman
1st Base: Caden Connor
2nd Base: Jack Haley
Short Stop: JT Navyac
3rd Base: Zach Lew
Right Field: Carter White
Center Field: Nate Nankil
Left Field: Colby Wallace
Everyone who started Game 1 with the exception of Wallace, saw significant playing time in 2022. Wallace transferred from the University of Washington and played in 28 games for the Huskies as a freshman last season. In 78 at-bats in 2022, Wallace batted .295 with five doubles.
Speaking of doubles, Wallace had a rocket shot that hit the Brian’s sign on the Left Center Field wall that scored Maddox Latta from 1st Base. Wallace went 1-for-4 on the day with his previous at-bats resulting in a fly out to left field, strikeout (thrown out at 1st Base on a dropped third strike) and a ground out before getting the double in the second game.
Coach Dietrich trotted out a lot of arms in both scrimmage games, giving each guy one inning to showcase what they can do.
Tyler Stultz looked every bit the Friday night starter in Game 1 and looks to hold that role in 2023 as he did to end the 2022 campaign. Stultz looked sharp and despite an error on a fly ball in Center Field by Nate Nankil, came out of the first inning unscathed. Stultz struck out the last Cougar batter of the inning on two straight 77 and 78 MPH change-ups.
In the second inning, Titan fans were treated to their first glimpse of Pepperdine transfer Trevor Hinkle. Hinkle induced two quick pop outs to shallow right field and then got the third Cougar out via swinging strikeout on a nasty change-up. Another transfer that impressed on the mound came in the third inning when JoJo Ingrassia, transfer from San Diego State, struck out the first batter looking to start off the inning. He did give up a walk but ended the inning on a check swing strikeout.
Returning lefty Josh Howitt looked as though his time in the Northwoods League for summer ball improved his confidence and his performance vs. Wazzu displayed that. Howitt relieved Freshman Aaron Ceniceros in the fourth with men on second and third and two outs. Howitt promptly struck out the only batter he saw in the fourth to end the inning. He then came back in the fifth to get two fly outs to center, a strike out giving up a double sandwiched between the outs that was eventually stranded.
Evan Yates saw a 1-2-3 inning in the sixth picking up three grounders while Jake Vargas struck out the first batter in the seventh and then recorded two ground outs.
Another pitching performance that stood out in the second game included the third inning outing by Golden West College transfer Jason Blood. Blood looked in control the whole way getting two Ks, one looking, the other on a check swing and then a fly out to right field.
The pitching improved from 2021 to 2022, dropping the ERA almost by an entire point overall and more than two points in conference. (6.01 to 5.20 & 6.44 to 4.34 in conference) If Jason Dietrich can continue on that trajectory by dropping the team ERA drastically again, the Titans could get back to their winning ways again. Of course, the offense will need to do their part which brings us to the next section…
In Dietrich’s first year at the helm and Assistant Coach Neil Walton running the offense, the Titans team batting average improved from .264 to .278. If the Titan batters can add 14 points to the batting average again, they could end the year batting .292. If you polled Titan fans if that would be a nice batting average, most would say they would take that all day and twice on Sundays.
The big fly that gave the Titans the 2-0 lead and eventually the Game 1 win came via one of the usual suspects in the Titans line-up by way of Nate Nankil’s bat. After Jackson Lapiner (transfer LA Valley College) led off the bottom of the seventh with a walk, big Nate destroyed a ball to left center that hit the netting between the new clubhouse building and the Alumni Association Scoreboard. (The video board is working again, by the way.) That home run would prove the difference in Game 1 although there were other batting performances of note.
Caden Connor had a screamer up the middle in the first inning that the pitcher fielded on a great defensive play. Nine times out of 10 that ball gets through to center field and Connor is standing on first smiling while taking off his batting gloves.
Zach Lew continued to do Zach Lew type things, standing on third base twice during Game 1. In the bottom of the second inning, Lew launched a frozen rope to left center that was a stand up double all day but a misplay by the center fielder allowed Lew to get to third for a triple. In the bottom of the fifth, another rocket shot to left center had Lew with an easy double. Brendan Bobo would advance Lew to third on a productive grounder, but he remained there without scoring.
Bobo also showed well at the plate getting a single that ripped through the infield between the WSU first and second basemen. Prior to his homer, Nankil had a lead off single right up the middle to open the bottom of the fourth.
JT Navyac Defense
JT Navyac looks to have improved his defense over the summer while playing for the Willmar Stingers in the Northwoods League. Many fans may recall that Navyac, in 49 games for the Titans in 2022, recorded 11 defensive errors while primarily playing short stop. Although last Saturday’s scrimmage was a small sample size, Navyac committed zero errors. In addition to the lack of errors, Navyac looked smooth and confident on defense.
Of the freshmen on this year’s squad, Eli Lopez was not one of the 10 that signed a National Letter of Intent back in November. Despite his lack of notoriety prior to his arrival and his lack of size (5’9″, 155 lbs.), Lopez’s performance vs. Washington State says he will have a big impact on the Titans in 2023.
Although there is no official box score to point to, the coaches inserted Lopez as a pinch runner and he played left side infield. At the plate, Lopez picked up a seeing eye grounder in the bottom of the 5th inning of the second game. If there was a box score, his defensive play would go down as routine put outs and assists but he looked more the part than what statistics would say.
We were pleasantly surprised with the way Lopez played, especially not having any expectations coming into the scrimmage.
Catchers Urman and Ortega
With the departure of Austin Schell via graduation, Cole Urman is the only catcher on the roster with Division 1 experience behind the plate. The program signed two freshmen catchers, Max Ortega and Jack Vanoncini and also a Junior College transfer, Waldier Perez from El Camino College.
Urman got the start and looked the part from where he left off last year. Urman continued to prove he is one of the best defensive catchers in college baseball. He blocked balls in the dirt that would be wild pitches and continued to catch the pitchers, framing strikes perfectly. The mere threat of his pop time to second base kept the few Cougar base runners from testing him.
In relief, Max Ortega looked sharp behind the plate as well. Ortega gunned down a stolen base attempt at third on a beautiful throw that had the runner dead to rights. Balls in the dirt were either picked or blocked by Ortega that prevented further traffic on the bases.
Titan fans did not see much of Jack Vanoncini behind the plate as he played more First Base defensively. Based on the small sample size on Saturday, it appears Cole Urman will get the regular time behind the plate but Titan fans should not fear a sharp and precipitous decline in performance when Max Ortega relieves him.
Nate Nankil played predominantly Right Field last season but looks to have the inside track for the starting Center Field spot for 2023. His offense appears on point but his error to open the game vs. Washington State did not instill a lot of confidence in him from those in attendance. Although the fly ball to center resulted in no damage during Tyler Stultz’s first inning, you hate to open the scrimmage with an error.
The other error did not come on defense but rather on the bases in the fourth inning. After leading off with a single up the middle, JT Navyac hit a piss missile to right center field that was caught. Off the bat it looked as though Navyac would get a base hit at the very least, but the Cougar outfielder made an outstanding catch for the out. Nankil advanced all the way to second before the catch and was doubled up at first base on an excellent throw from the outfield.
Chester Surrenders the Homer
Fynn Chester started the second game and immediately got the first batter to pop out to second base. The next batter launched a moon shot that hit off the top of the scoreboard. 1-0 Cougars to start the second game.
Unfazed, Chester induced a weak grounder and then Caden Connor, now playing right field for Game 2, made a nice catch in foul territory and avoided colliding with the fence for the third out.
Sticking with the plan on getting each arm an inning of work, Chester was done for the day and unfortunately gave up the only earned run of both scrimmage games.
Game 2 Weather
Blame it on all the heat Southern California has experienced into the fall months but once the sun went down, the temperatures dropped, and it started raining.
Admittedly, we were unprepared for the colder temperatures and the wet weather, and we packed up and left after the sixth inning. Although the second game was scheduled for eight innings, we heard both teams agreed to end it after seven. (Apologies to Peyton Jones for not staying through your inning on the mound but we heard it was excellent.)
The Titans travel to Las Vegas on Saturday to face UNLV on Saturday, October 29, 2022. Not many details have come out regarding scrimmage, but we assume they will be consisting of two scrimmages and the first will start mid-day. We do know that the scrimmages will take place on campus at Earl E. Wilson Stadium.
The last time the Titans faced UNLV was in a 2017 weekend series in February where the Titans took two of the three games at home. The last time the Titans faced UNLV in a fall ball scrimmage came last year at Goodwin Field. Those scrimmage games resulted in the Titans winning the first game 6-0 after seven innings and then ending in a 6-6 tie for game No. 2.
In 2019, the Titans traveled up I-15 to play UNLV in another fall ball scrimmage, playing those games in the Las Vegas Ballpark, where the Las Vegas Aviators, the triple-A affiliate of the Oakland A’s play their games.
October 29, 2022 (Saturday) vs. UNLV – 12:00 PM (Estimated)
October 29, 2022 (Saturday) vs. UNLV – 3:00 PM (Approximate)