UAB Head Baseball Coach Brian Shoop looks on during the team's first intersquad game of the year. Photo courtesy of Scott McLeod.
UAB Head Baseball Coach Brian Shoop looks on during the team’s first intersquad game of the year. Photo courtesy of Scott McLeod.

The UAB Blazers baseball program had an up-and-down year in 2015 going 15-15 in conference play and 33-25 overall, but a late push got them to the Conference USA Championship game where they eventually loss to Florida International.

Head Coach Brian Shoop has done a remarkable job with the UAB baseball program over the last 10 years and has turned them into a perennial contender in the conference.

In 2014 he led them to 35 wins, which was the most in school history since 1993, and they’ve won 30 or more games in three of the last four years. In 2012 he led the Blazers to their first ever Conference USA Baseball Tournament Championship, and they went to the NCAA Regionals for just the second time in program history.

The Blazers have been fortunate enough to play a lot of their home games at the beautiful Regions Field in downtown Birmingham – the home of the Birmingham Barons – which has helped bring in some top recruits the past couple of years.

The 2016 season will be a difficult one for Shoop as they are losing a lot from the 2015 squad, but the coach has proven over the past couple of years that he knows how to develop talent and make them into a winner.

I’m sure Shoop and staff will be able to once again put another solid lineup and pitching staff out there to have them competing for the CUSA crown this season. Just don’t be surprised if they get off to a difficult start as they work through the struggles of finding out who fits where.

Regardless, I am ecstatic about another season of Blazers baseball!

 

Recap of last season

UAB started out the season on fire winning their first six games, and winning eight of their first 10. They had a big series at home against Ohio State early in the year and took 2-out-of-3 from the Buckeyes at Regions Field.

UAB shortstop Adam Smith gets ready during UAB's first intersquad game on January 30, 2016. Photo courtesy of Scott McLeod.
UAB shortstop Adam Smith gets ready during UAB’s first intersquad game on January 30, 2016. Photo courtesy of Scott McLeod.

However, they got off to a bad start in Conference USA play getting swept in the first weekend by Middle Tennessee.

They got rolling again after sweeping a twinset against Ole Miss at Regions Field in the middle of the week, which was followed up by a three-game sweep of Western Kentucky.

A couple of weekends later the Blazers hosted the 12th ranked team in the country in the Rice Owls and took 2-out-of-3 from them.

They failed to beat either Alabama or Auburn during the 2015 season, which I know bugged coach Shoop all offseason.

The Blazers finished the regular season with a 15-15 conference record and an 18-10 out-of-conference record. They were 17-12 at home and 14-12 on the road. They were 9-5 in games that were played at Regions Field.

UAB entered the conference tournament as the 6 seed and immediately made their presence felt by taking down the 3 seed, and home favorite, Southern Miss in the first round. Then they beat 19th ranked Florida Atlantic in the second round 2-1. The Blazers then turned right back around and beat the Owls again, this time in impressive fashion 10-0.

Unfortunately, the only team hotter than UAB at that time was the eighth seeded Florida International Panthers. After knocking off top-seeded Rice 6-5 in round one, they scored 15 runs in each of their next two games before finishing off UAB 8-2 in the championship game.

Despite 33 overall wins and a great run in the tournament, the Blazers were left out of the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year.

Pitcher James Naile was selected to first team All-Conference and was selected in the 20th round of the MLB Draft by the Oakland Athletics. Relief pitcher Adam Lau was picked for second team All-Conference honors and was taken in the 37th round of the MLB Draft by the Boston Red Sox.

Catcher Esteban Tresgallo was also selected to second team All-Conference after hitting .292 in his junior season, while Ryan Ruggles was named to the All-Freshman team for Conference USA.

Pitcher Alex Luna was one of three Blazers taken in the 2015 MLB Draft, and he drew the highest selection of the three going in the 10th round to the Kansas City Royals. That was the most players UAB has had taken in a draft since 1996.

 

Lineup

As mentioned already, the Blazers will be losing a lot from their starting lineup a year ago, both on offense and in the pitching rotation. However, two of their top three hitters from 2015 do return in Tresgallo and Griffin Gum.

Preseason All-Conference member catcher Esteban Tresgallo delivers the ball back to the pitcher during UAB's intersquad game on January 30, 2016. Photo courtesy of Scott McLeod.
Preseason All-Conference member catcher Esteban Tresgallo delivers the ball back to the pitcher during UAB’s intersquad game on January 30, 2016. Photo courtesy of Scott McLeod.

Tresgallo will once again settle in behind the plate for the Blazers and will most likely hit in the four-hole. The catcher was second on the team in 2015 with an average of .292. He also led the team in runs with 40, home runs with 12 and on-base-percentage at .404. He did all of that while only starting in 45 of their 58 games. He also drove in 35 runs, which was second best on the team. The redshirt senior is poised to have a big year in 2016.

Gum also returns for his senior season after hitting .274 a year ago, while playing mainly right field for the Blazers. He scored 26 runs, drove in 20, had a .361 on-base-percentage and stole 11 bases. Shoop used him in the two-hole at the end of last season, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him settle into the three or four-hole to start the year.

The only other regular starter from a year ago that will be coming back is shortstop Adam Smith. He had a rough year in 2015 hitting just .230, but he is spectacular with the glove and came up with some huge hits last season. Seriously, it’s worth coming to a game just to see this guy play defense.

Another notable player returning from last year is Evan Peterson. He hit .222 last year in 81 at-bats and the senior could begin this year as the starting third or second baseman.

Brett Blackwood is another name to watch this year. He only hit .186 as a freshman in just 59 at-bats, but he could also start at one of the openings on the infield. According to Coach Shoop Blackwood is dealing with a knee issue that could keep him from playing this year. However, if he is cleared to play he will likely be starting at first base.

Depth Chart:

C – Esteban Tresgallo/Mitch Williams

1B – Blackwood/Tresgallo/Carter Pharis

2B – Evan Peterson/Blake Johnson/Pharis

SS – Adam Smith

3B – Peterson/Jacob Armstrong/Tresgallo/Pharis

LF – Riley McCown/Brewer Hicklen

CF – Jared Nixon/Gum

RF – Griffin Gum/ Luke Eigsti

DH – Tresgallo/Gum

Projected Lineup:

  1. Nixon
  2. Peterson
  3. Tresgallo
  4. Gum
  5. McCown
  6. Smith
  7. Pharis
  8. Williams
  9. Armstrong

 

Rotation

It’s devastating when this happens, but the Blazers are losing all three of their weekend starters from a year ago in James Naile, Alex Luna and Johnny Lieske.

UAB pitcher Thomas Lowery delivers a pitch during UAB's intersquad game on January 30, 2016. Photo courtesy of Scott McLeod.
UAB pitcher Thomas Lowery delivers a pitch during UAB’s intersquad game on January 30, 2016. Photo courtesy of Scott McLeod.

The most likely candidate to take over at least one of the weekend rotation spots will be sophomore Ryan Ruggles. He made six starts a year ago and posted an ERA of 4.11 as a freshman in 46 innings, while striking out 35 batters.

Of the players returning, junior Dylan Munger made the second most starts last year with six. He finished with a 4.58 ERA over his 13 appearances, striking out 12 batters in 19.2 innings. He’ll most likely get a shot in the rotation.

Thomas Lowery leads the team in innings pitched from a year ago among pitchers that are returning, but all 55.1 of his innings came out of the bullpen. He struck out 62 batters in those innings, had a 7-3 record and finished with an ERA of 2.11. He may be the best arm the Blazers have, but Shoop may want to continue to utilize him from the bullpen. If not, he could be a great addition to the rotation.

Cory Eller also returns this year after having his 2015 campaign cut short due to injury. Before getting hurt he had a 1.71 ERA in 6.2 innings, and the year before he had an ERA of 3.29 in 41 innings. Coming off an injury he most likely won’t get a shot in the rotation, but if Lowery gets a starting spot Eller could be the Blazers’ closer this year.

Projected Weekend Rotation:

SP1 – Ryan Ruggles

SP2 – Thomas Lowery

SP3 – Dylan Munger

 

Newcomers

Hitters:

Carter Pharis – He played shortstop for Hewitt-Trussville where he hit .372 as a junior, drove in 33 runs and stole 33 bases. He was named the North/East Player of the Year that season. It’s unclear how much playing time he’ll get in 2016, but with this beings Adam Smith’s final year it’s possible he could take over the shortstop position next year.

Jared Nixon – As a junior Nixon hit .458, scored 31 runs, drove in 27 and stole 17 bases. He played shortstop and center field, while also going 6-3 on the mound with a 2.48 ERA. With his speed and experience in center field, Nixon could compete for the starting job as a freshman.

Riley McCown – As a sophomore at Volunteer State Community College McCown hit .336 in 137 at-bats, while leading the team in runs scored (40) and on-base-percentage (.438). With all of the losses in the outfield, McCown will almost certainly get a chance to earn a starting spot in left or center field.

Zakez Jones – I couldn’t find much history on Jones’ high school numbers, but he’s listed as a catcher and infielder on UAB’s roster. The freshman from Center Point probably won’t get much playing time at catcher this year with the depth UAB has there, but if he can hit he could find himself competing for the third base or second base job.

Zack Davis – Shoop went after the Kansas City, Mo. kid to try and find someone to replace the left-handed power in the lineup that would be lost when Jeff Schalk left. As a junior Davis hit .410 with 4 home runs and 35 RBIs, while also going 5-0 on the mound with a 1.61 ERA. Shoop may have found his power bat and power arm out of the bullpen at the same time. There are a couple of outfield spots available, and the freshman could find himself in one of them if he impresses early. If not, it’s possible he could still play as a freshman coming out of the bullpen.

Pitchers:

Tanner Graham – In his junior season he hit .401 and drove in 44 runs, while going 8-2 on the mound with a 1.13 ERA. The righty clearly has a great arm, and his 6-foot-3 frame should play nicely as a future starter, but he probably works mostly out of the bullpen this season with the exception of a midweek start possibly.

Garrett Whitlock – Through 50 innings pitched during his senior season Whitlock had a 6-2 record and 0.56 ERA (how do you lose two games with that ERA?). He set the school record at Providence Christian High School in Snellville, Ga. for lowest single season ERA. At 6-foot-4 the righty has a great future as a starter for the UAB Blazers. Hopefully we’ll get to see him showcase that arm this year.

Luke Eigsti – From Scottsdale, Ariz., Luke was ranked as the seventh best player in Arizona coming out of high school. On the mound as a junior he posted an ERA of 2.37 and struck out 48 batters in 44 innings. As an outfielder he hit .388 with 4 home runs his junior year. It’s unclear where Shoop will want to utilize Luke the most, but it’s clear he has a big arm as he was clocked throwing 95 mph from the outfield.

Matthew Calvert – Calvert was ranked as the second best high school lefty in Alabama last year. In his first two varsity years with Clay-Chalkville High School he posted an ERA of 1.88 in 115 innings, while striking out 108 batters. It wouldn’t be surprising to see this lefty get some work out of the bullpen this year.

Eric Henderson – The right-handed pitcher spent two seasons at Darton State Community College before transferring to UAB. As a sophomore he made 13 appearances and made six starts compiling a 2.58 ERA in 41 innings with 26 strikeouts. Henderson will most likely be used out of the bullpen in 2016.

Austin Thomas – Thomas is a junior college transfer from Chattahoochee Valley Community College where he posted an ERA of 3.58 his sophomore year in 32.2 innings. The right-handed pitcher will help give some depth to the UAB bullpen in 2016.

Kyle Davis – Davis was rated by Perfect Game as the best prospect in Alabama before Tommy John surgery shut him down for his entire senior year. It’s unlikely he’ll get much playing time if any in 2016, but he could be a big boost to the future of this rotation. He is also listed as a first baseman so Davis will most likely be a two-way player when healthy.

 

Predictions

Baseball is the most difficult sport to predict because anyone can beat anyone on a given day, but college baseball is especially hard to predict because you never know how high school players and transfers are going to adjust to the Division 1 level of play.

UAB rightfielder Griffin Gum rounds second and heads into third for a triple in UAB's intersquad game on January 30, 2016. Photo courtesy of Scott McLeod.
UAB rightfielder Griffin Gum rounds second and heads into third for a triple in UAB’s intersquad game on January 30, 2016. Photo courtesy of Scott McLeod.

This year for the Blazers is even more difficult to predict because of all of the players they’re having to replace. They lost six from their starting lineup, and all three of their weekend starters. That is an unreal amount of production to replace.

Shoop has done a masterfully job putting his team together the past couple of years, but this will be his biggest task yet. I can’t ever remember a team losing as much from one year to the next. It’s hard to predict how a lot of these newcomers will react during a game, and they will need time to adjust to this level of competition.

UAB has been great in developing pitchers the last several seasons and I am completely confident they will put together a good pitching staff in 2016. In the past two years the staff ERA has been 3.60 or lower. However, someone is going to have to step up in the rotation if the Blazers are going to have any shot to win in 2016.

Shoop knows how to get the most out of his lineup. They aren’t going to light up the scoreboards, but they do the small things to make sure they take advantage of opportunities to score runs; however, if the pitching can’t get it done and keep the score low it’s going to be a long season for the Blazers.

I love coach Shoop and think he will have this team playing at the best of their capabilities, I’m not sure how capable that team will be this year.

Fortunately a lot of their early games are at home, but they also have some difficult preseason games playing against six teams that won at least 30 games last year, and two teams that made it to the NCAA Tournament in Ohio and Ole Miss.

Conference USA recently announced their preseason predictions for baseball and picked UAB to finish eighth in the conference. FIU was the eighth seed a year ago after finishing 13-17 in conference play and ended up winning the tournament, so maybe that’s not a bad place to be.

I think if Shoop can just get this team into the conference tournament it would be an amazing feat with all of the talent he lost from a year ago. Still, if they can find one or two starters to step up in the rotation this could once again be a 30 win team.

Go Blazers!

 

 

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