"All things considered, it was a tough fall for a lot of reasons, especially in the beginning," said Bianco, in his tenth year with the program. "Certainly the weather made it difficult not to have the routine of being out there every single day. We had some bad fortune where we lost some guys to injuries and sickness and other things. Most of them were pitchers. When you put that together with some of them like Drew Pomeranz taking much of the fall to rest their arms, we kind of had a skeleton crew for a few weeks."
But that did change some as the weeks passed from late September into early November.
"Once we started getting some guys back from injury, some guys back from sickness, some guys back from taking some time off, we looked much stronger on the mound," Bianco said.
"Position player-wise, I like this team," he continued. "We return a lot of players, although we lost some like (Logan) Power and (Jordan) Henry. Some guys have stepped up and looked terrific. Also some of the recruits have come in and done a great job. So overall I think it was a good fall, especially the way it ended."
A couple of key moves seemed to work this fall. Matt Smith left first base and headed out to right field, while Tim Ferguson, at second some last season, moved out to center field.
"I don't know that it was a big experiment," Bianco said. "We felt it was something that would make us a better team. Not only that, but it kind of showcased some of those players' talents more. Moving Tim and Matt to the outfield showed more of their athleticism. They both played real well throughout the fall."
Both players' throwing arms were also effective from the outfield, according to Bianco.
The infield is a work in progress. Only Kevin Mort at shortstop seems a totally done deal, barring an injury or other occurrence. Zach Miller was back home at second after a season at third, but he could wind up there again at some point in the spring if needed.
Mike Snyder appears to be the leading candidate at third, while his twin brother, Matt, is tops at first through the fall.
Freshmen Alex Yarbrough and Evan Frazar are also in the mix for infield playing time.
"Certainly Mort looks terrific at short," Bianco said. "I thought Mike Snyder really improved at third. But Miller could move back over there. I don't know if that's what will happen at the beginning of the season. But it certainly could happen if you're trying to play a defensive type lineup or something like that."
The left field leader seems to be returnee David Phillips.
"He had a good fall, and an even better fall when you include the batting practices and all the practices," Bianco said. "Sometimes we look beyond the statistics, even though he ended up hitting .333. But he looked terrific and continues to improve every day defensively. He also could play some first. We had him a few games, very few, at first base. So that's an option, too. He had a great fall and looked really strong."
Taylor Hashman has also been in left field.
"He didn't have quite the fall Phillips had," Bianco said. "But he's improved tremendously defensively, and he led the team in stolen bases in the fall. Certainly he's a guy that will be in the mix."
Newcomer Tanner Mathis, a freshman, was having quite a fall as an outfielder and as a potential leadoff batter until an injury. Mathis is having surgery today to repair a torn meniscus (knee). But he won't be out for long.
"It will be about four weeks until he is 100 percent," Bianco said. "When he leaves here after final (semester) exams, he should be 100 percent."
Bianco said a healthy Mathis would figure heavily into their plans.
"If we were to start today, he would be the leadoff hitter," he said. "I don't know if he would be in left or center. Both he and Tim played well in center field. We're so far away from opening day, it's hard to say. But there are options. Come Feb. 19, there will still be those options."
Bianco expands a bit on some of the newcomers.
"Yarbrough's had a great fall. We knew he could field. He was the Texas 5A defensive player of the year. He had a great fall offensively, batted .381, had five doubles. He was really clean in the field at all the positions we played him, second, short, or third."
Miles Hamblin shared time at catcher with Taylor Hightower.
"I thought Miles did a terrific job behind the plate and offensively. He adds some power to the lineup and another hitter from the left side."
Evan Frazar is another highly touted new infielder.
"He had a good fall. He kind of cooled down toward the end. He's very athletic and can run. He's got a great arm and can do a lot of different things."
Hightower is a sophomore but played sparingly last season, appearing in 14 games behind seniors Brett Basham and Kyle Henson.
"He played better at the end," Bianco said of Hightower's fall. "He struggled a little early in all phases. Offensively he had a good fall. He's a great leader and a kid that plays so hard. But I don't think it was his best fall defensively. He's a better catcher than what he caught this fall."
*** Next time in Part II, a look at the pitchers.
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