By: Jeff Roberson
The Utah baseball program, Ole Miss’ first-round opponent Friday night in the Oxford Regional, experienced a rough welcome into the Pacific-12 Conference. In the first four years in their new league, the Utes finished dead last. They were picked to finish there again this preseason.
But they didn’t. They went out and won the crown. And by two games ahead of everyone else. That’s right, a Pac-12 championship after four years on the bottom and predictably headed for a fifth.
The Pac-12 does not have a conference tournament, so Utah finished off its regular season at home last weekend with a series win against Washington, that program OIe Miss eliminated from the Oxford Regional two years ago. After dropping a 5-4 decision in the opener against the Huskies, Utah won game two 12-8 and game three 21-7.
The season had a rough start for the Utes. They dug so deep a hole that even at 19-11 in Pac-12 play, they still have a losing mark overall of 25-27.
When rival Brigham Young beat Utah 6-0 on March 12 and UU fell to 4-10, veteran head coach Bill Kinneberg said he could see it in the demeanor of his players that something had to change. And he actually heard that from the players themselves.
“We played that night and I could see our team had no energy, no life. They were miserable,” he said. “And we were miserable as coaches. We’d all had a tough month. We made some changes the next day as far as our attitude, the way we were going to go about it. The kids changed. They were the ones that told us what they needed from us. There was a distinct change in our practice (the next day). We went to Oregon and won two of three games.”
The Utes then won two of three from Arizona State and swept Arizona.
“At that point our whole season changed,” Kinneberg said.
Utah went on to win its first Pac-12 men’s championship in any sport since it joined the league.
The fact that there are so few teams out West this year in the NCAA Tournament and no Regional host sites is a surprise, considering there normally are more teams in the mix to do both. Kinneberg gives his assessment.
“It’s always been, for us in the West, that the RPI hurts us,” he said. “The reason for that is we all play each other and we beat each other up. There aren’t as many schools out there. I think the RPI needs to be tweaked or done something for some of us.
“And the perception is that if UCLA has a down year or Stanford’s not in it, then the West is down. UCLA and Stanford had below par years. Arizona and Arizona State are very good. It’s too bad Oregon State is not in, because they’re really good. Hopefully for the West Coast schools, the 11 of us that are in it, we can make some noise and maybe prove some doubters wrong. But it’s up to us to do that.”
Kinneberg sends ace Jayson Rose to the mound to face the Rebels in the 7 p.m. game today. He said Rose is a true ace for his Utes.
“First of all he competes like a mad man,” Kinneberg said. “Second, he’s got an out pitch with his changeup. It’s a true out pitch. If that changeup is on, it’s very hard to hit. He’s a 92-93 mile an hour guy with a quality changeup.”
Rose is a sophomore right-hander who is 8-5 this season with a 2.62 ERA. His 102 strikeouts lead the Pac-12 in that department. He said his second season in college has been better than his first.
“No new pitches. I just have better location on pitches that I throw. Overall just a better mindset and control of the game,” Rose said.
Rose also said the Utes were a different team at the start of Pac-12 play, and for the remainder of the season things were much better.
“Our hitting has come along. We get a lot of timely hits, a lot of key hits in late situations,” Rose said. “After the start (to the season), it was not good around the clubhouse. We were all kind of down. But going into Pac (12) play everyone was like let’s start a new season, we’re 0-0, and that’s what matters. Rallying the troops was key, and from that point on we were pretty good.”
Kinneberg said if Rose pitches at the top of his game, he can be a tough one for an offense to handle.
“We’ve got our hands full, Jaysen’s got his hands full, with that (Ole Miss) offense,” he said. “But if he’s on, he can match up against anybody.”