JJ Perez, InsideRunnerSports.com

UTSA Baseball Season Preview

It’s time to play ball. UTSA Baseball begins the 2017 season Friday. InsideRunnerSports previews the upcoming season.

By JJ Perez
For InsideRunnerSports.com

For the better part of the last four seasons, Head Baseball Coach Jason Marshall has experienced his fair share of success. The long-time assistant coach took over the program beginning in the 2013 season. Since then, Marshall and UTSA have experienced the following: fastest coach to 100 wins, back-to-back-to-back 30-win seasons, a Western Athletic Conference Title, and a trip to an NCAA Regional.

Marshall is also UTSA’s winningest coach baseball in terms of winning percentage.

But last season was a different story. For the first time in Marshall’s tenure, the Roadrunners had down year. In 2016, UTSA was just 17-34 overall and 8-20 in CUSA play. So when the Roadrunners begin their 2017 season Friday vs Quinnipiac, they’ll be looking to bounce back.

“It’s about putting last year in the past and really wiping the slate clean on a new year,” said Marshall. “I really feel that the key to this year is experiencing winning again. There’s anticipation and excitement in every one of our guys to really put UTSA baseball on the map.

A lot UTSA’s issues last season stemmed from players being injured and unavailable.

“We have some kids who have been out for 12 months,” said Marshall. “They’ve got to get back between those white lines and play the game again.”

One the major storylines for this 2017 season is the return of Outfield Jesse Baker to the lineup. The Brennan-native missed all of 2016 after being dismissed due to an off-the-field incident.

“There’s definitely a dose of humility that gets dealt to you,” Marshall said of Baker. “For him, especially, he had to pay a high price for his decisions.”

In 2015, Baker batted .330 with 15 home runs and a league-best 137 total bases. That earned him Louisville Slugger All-American Honors. In the preseason, CUSA coaches voted Baker to the 15-member All-Conference USA Preseason team.

“He’s going to first in our batting order because we want him to get to the plate as many times as possible. If that lineup flips over a fourth or fifth time in the ninth inning, we want him to be up first,” said Marshall.

While Baker’s return as a fifth-year senior will certainly have an impact to the lineup, UTSA’s overall success doesn’t necessarily fall all on his shoulders.

“Duplicating an All-American season after being out for 12 months is tough,” said Marshall. “I’m happy with the fact that we do have enough depth that everything is not all on him to try to carry the load.”

And the fact that UTSA has depth headed into this season with depth is probably the biggest storyline of 2017.

“The depth and having everybody healthy (is exciting),” said Marshall. “That is the big key, first and foremost. You feel like you’ve got a chance to go out and compete and play well against the best teams. From top to bottom, you feel like you can compete.”

In Conference USA, the most important aspect of the game boils down to pitching.

“I feel like we are seven or eight strong on the pitching side, that can really help us compete in Conference USA,” said Marshall. “

Marshall says Chance Kirby, Noland Trabanino, Karan Patel, and Steven Dressler are likely his top four pitchers.

With a strong group of starters, it also appears like the bullpen will be solid as well.

“The bullpen is where we’re going to make the big strides,” said Marshall. “Tyler Giovanoni, a transfer from Howard College, is really one of the top arms we’ve had in the program in my 17 years. Out of nowhere, CJ Pickering, a senior infielder, has come on as a pitcher. Chris Muller, a transfer from Paris College, is another kid that is going to really solidify the bullpen. Karl Craigie, who started a bunch of games for us last season, will go into the bullpen. There are even a few others that threw a bunch of innings for us that are going to be vying for innings as well.”

Defensively, the Roadrunners were pretty good last season. There will be two newcomers, however, that will have an impact on the team. Juco transfers Chris Estrada and Tony Beam are expected to crack the starting lineup.

“Chris Estrada is a transfer, he’s going to play third base. He’s a fantastic defender, I really like him,” said Marshall. “Tony Beam hit 25 home runs at Midland College last spring, he’s probably either going to catch or play first base.”

Offensively, the Roadrunners are expected to be strong again.

“Definitely the offensive side has been a strength of the program, even in the some of the down years. With the number of offensive players that return into this group, the sky is the limit for what we can accomplish.

The Roadrunners also have a roster that is heavy with Juniors and Seniors. That should help them with leadership both on and off the field. It all starts Friday, 6pm at Roadrunner Field.

Projected Line Up
 - RF: Jesse Baker
 - C: Kevin Markham
 - LF/DH: Skyler Valentine, Trent Bowles, JT Gilmore, Ryan Stacy
 - 3rd Base: Chris Estrada
 - SS: CJ Pickering
 - 2nd Base: Bryan Arias
 - 1st Base: Tony Beam, Geonte Jackson, Ben Brookover
 - Catcher: Tony Beam, Mason George

Projected Starting Pitcher
 - Chance Kirby
 - Noland Trabanino
 - Karan Patel
 - Steven Dressler

Head Coach Jason Marshall Interview

What are your thoughts as the season approaches?
It’s an exciting time to be at UTSA and to be able to wear a Roadrunner uniform. Big-picture, it’s about putting last year in the past and really wiping the slate clean on a new year and getting off to a new start. I really feel that the key to this year is experiencing winning again. There’s anticipation and excitement in every one of our guys to really put UTSA baseball on the map.”

What did you learn about yourself from last season?
“You learn that you can’t control everything. As a head coach, sometimes you definitely try to put your arms around the entire program and every situation. But some things are out of your control. So you just coach the best you can. It forces you as a coach to look at what you’re doing. We’ve been focusing on the principles once again. We’re anxious for a good year.”

Have you made any significant changes?
“You do change some things you do in practice. We’re always looking at ways we can play the game fast and really get the most out of the personality. I’ve told these guys over and over again, I’m much more concerned about their personality than I am their play. We’re working ourselves in to playing the game that we want to play it.

What excites you about this team the most?
“The depth and having everybody healthy. That is the big key, first and foremost. You feel like you’ve got a chance to go out and compete and play well against the best teams. From top to bottom, you feel like you can compete. Definitely the offensive side has been a strength of the program, even in the some of the down years. With the number of offensive players that return into this group, the sky is the limit for what we can accomplish. And just having so many junior and senior ball players on your roster that will be in the lineup, there’s a heavy emphasis on those guys. The thing that has come up lately is getting a few arms healthy that were out this fall. I feel like we are seven or eight strong on the pitching side that can really help us compete in Conference USA. I don’t care how well you hit, you’ve got to be able to play catch and throw strikes and compete from the mound if want to have any shot in Conference USA? 

Do you know what your pitching rotation will look like?
I think so. Chance Kirby, Noland Trabanino (who was out all of last year), Karan Patel (who came in late last year as a freshman), those three guys are likely. Steven Dressler is another kid who redshirted last year from Canada. He’s going to fit in our top four arms. The bullpen, though, is where we’re going to make the big strides. Tyler Giovanoni, a transfer from Howard College, is really one of the top arms we’ve had in the program in my 17 years. That’s putting a lot on him but I have high expectations for him. Out of nowhere, CJ Pickering, a senior infielder, has come on as a pitcher. He’s going to have a bullpen role. Chris Muller, a transfer from Paris College, is another kid that is going to really solidify the bullpen. Karl Craigie, who started a bunch of games for us last season, will go into the bullpen. There are even a few others that threw a bunch of innings for us that are going to be vying for innings as well. But I kind of see those eight guys as the center piece moving forward.

How is the defense?
“There’s definitely some competition at a couple of spots but seven or eight of our positions are pretty much locked down. Jesse Baker will return to our outfield and most likely play right field. Kevin Markham in center. We have some competition in left by we love our collection of guys. Skyler Valentine hit .320 for us last year. Trent Bowles was a 2015 freshman All-American but was hampered with injuries all last year. JT Gilmore is Rudy Ruettiger type. Ryan Stacey is an up and comer and is just a good athlete. Those are four left fields that can potential DH or play left. Chris Estrada is a transfer, he’s going to play third base. He’s a fantastic defender, I really like him. CJ Pickering will be at short. Brian Arias was All-Conference USA Freshman Team will move over to second. First base, there’s some competition there. Tony Beam hit 25 home runs at Midland College last spring, he’s probably either going to catch or play first base. Geonte Jackson is still recovering from injury. Ben Brookover is in there (at first) and Mason George Behind the plate. Those names I think are really going to be the center piece.

What’s it been like navigating through Geonte Jackson’s eye injury?
“It’s been another learning experience as a coach. I’ve coached 22 years and I’ve never seen an injury like his. It’s the first time as a coach where I’ve dealt with someone whose eyesight was in danger. It was an injury that looked rather harmless. But to have orbital bone surgery around your eye and basically have retina surgery on the eye, it’s just created challenges for Geonte on a daily basis. There were definitely some humbling moments for him this fall. Also, Geonte lost his mother last year, right before the season started. It’s been a heck of a year for the kid. Probably as much as anyone out here, I think the 35 guys are rooting for Geonte Jackson to make a return. To what degree, what amount of at bats, and what level he’s going to play, we’re still kind of holding our breath and hoping for the best. Regardless, I’ve seen a guy become a man right before my eyes. I couldn’t be more pleased if he could finish his senior season strong.”

What impact to do expect Jesse Baker to have?
“Every team needs a bell cow. That’s an old school saying there. I don’t know what the right word is to put on him. Everybody on the field has known when that guy steps on the field that he’s different. From his batting practice to things he can do with a baseball. Hitting the ball out of the ballpark, arm-strength from right field, just the athleticism. He’s a fifth year guy and has that leadership. I don’t want to put too much on him. Duplicating an All-American season after being out for 12 months is tough. I’m happy with the fact that we do have enough depth that everything is not all on him to try to carry the load. He’s going to first in our batting order because we want him to get to the plate as many times as possible. If that lineup flips over a fourth or fifth time in the ninth inning, we want him to be up first. That ‘ought to tell you something about what we think about him. He plays the game extremely hard, he plays at the tempo that we want, and he provides plenty of offense.

Has Baker matured?
“There’s no doubt. There’s definitely a dose of humility that gets dealt to you. For him, especially, he had to pay a high price for his decisions. He had a chance to probably transfer out of UTSA and to move on to somewhere else and finish his senior year. The loyalty has run both ways, us towards him and him towards us. We as a coaching staff hold him in such high regard. He’ll go down as one of the greats that has worn our uniform regardless of what happens this year. We hope the best for him and finishes on a high note and gets to realize the dream of playing professional baseball.”

How was your recruiting class?
In football and basketball your recruits are so highly publicized. It’s a little bit more difficult to equate in baseball. You look at baseball bodies, tall, linear bodies, and when they fill out and reach their potential, it’s a little bit different. I feel like we’re at a place at UTSA because of the league we are in, the level of competition, and schedule, we’re able to go out and recruit good players. From the area, Jonathan Tapia from O’Connor has the chance to be a real superstar here. He’s a two sport guy and has a lot of accolades in both sports. If you watched him play football, you can just see the athleticism. You put that in a baseball uniform and you can dream big on that. I fell in love with Jonathan this summer as an infield coach. Overall, we’re excited, probably a little more than our past recruiting classes. Knowing that we’re going to lose seven or eight seniors that are all going to contribute, this was an important recruiting class for us. They are guys that have a chance to step in and compete right away. It’s an important year for us to hopefully build off successes from 2017.

   


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