(MSU Billings release)
BILLINGS – The string of success that has been associated with the Montana State University Billings baseball team continued last year as the Yellowjackets advanced to the Great Northwest Athletic Conference championships for the third straight season.
Under second-year head coach Aaron Sutton, the ‘Jackets have their sights set on more postseason play in 2018 after being picked to finish second in the 2018 GNAC preseason coaches poll. MSUB’s competitive 50-game schedule begins Thursday evening at Dixie State University, as the ‘Jackets will play the Trailblazers three times as well as Cal State University San Bernardino once this weekend in St. George, Utah.
MSUB also has three-game series at the College of Idaho (NAIA) and the University of Northern Colorado (NCAA Division I) on the calendar, before diving into its 40-game GNAC schedule in the beginning of March.
“We have really high expectations for the team, and we are competing in a conference that is always tough,” commented Sutton. “We have had the opportunity to play postseason ball the last few years, and that is something that is now an expectation for this club.”
Similar to past seasons, MSUB opens the 2018 campaign with 18 consecutive road games, before its first home series against Saint Martin’s University on March 16-17. It will be the first of five four-game GNAC series at Dehler Park this year, before the 2018 GNAC Championships May 9-11 in Ellensburg, Wash. If MSUB can finish in the top-four among the six-team GNAC baseball field, it would make a return to the conference tournament for the fourth straight year.
The ‘Jackets overcame a tough start to the 2017 season, winning nine of their final 11 regular-season games to cruise into the conference tournament. MSUB lost both of its playoff contests, finishing the year with an overall record of 23-29 and a mark of 21-19 in GNAC play.
“We return the heart of our lineup, and offense is going to be a strong suit for us,” Sutton said. “There is going to be a lot of experience coming back, and we have a lot of guys who are comfortable in the program now.”
Back from last year’s squad are all-GNAC selections Ryan Myers, Jalen Garcia, and Adam Cox, who figure to pace the team offensively this season. Garcia earned preseason all-region recognition from the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, after being second on the team in batting average (.327) and RBIs (38) a season ago. Garcia will make the move from right field to center this season to captain the outfield.
“The outfield is an area we will have to fill losing Casey (Merritt) and Zach (Robinson), but Jalen really came on when he got healthy last year,” Sutton said. “We are going to depend on him for leadership, and he is a five-tool guy who we know can be a game-changer.”
Myers may be the biggest power threat in the GNAC, coming off a year in which he hit 11 home runs and drove in a team-best 39 while hitting an even .300. Myers led the GNAC in on-base percentage at .474 and ranked second in slugging percentage at .631 in 2017, his first year at MSUB after transferring from Washington State University.
“Ryan had a tremendous junior season, and he is a guy who is never satisfied,” said Sutton. “He is healthy and we are excited to see what he can do this year. I know he wants the opportunity to continue playing after his senior season is done, and he has a good chance to go prove he can do that.”
Cox, who was an all-region selection after a stellar 2016 campaign, will return as a key bat in the lineup as well as a powerful arm on the pitching staff. The two-way player already has MSUB’s career saves record (9), and is No. 8 in MSUB history in career RBIs with 64.
MSUB Baseball Career RBI Leaders
Rank Name RBI Seasons
1 Brody Miller 158 2012-15
2 Luke Reinschmidt 127 2014-16
3 Colby Robison 111 2011-13
4 Colter Sternhagen 96 2013-16
5 Matt Schoonover 90 2007-10
6 Kevin Toon 75 2013-16
7 Casey Merritt 71 2014-17
8 Adam Cox 64 2015-18
9 Blake Nelson 58 2008, 10-12
10 Drew Fosnes 55 2013-14
Blake Loran 55 2011-15
Questions about MSUB’s lack of experience in the infield last year were answered quickly, when three newcomers including Myers stood out at the plate. Conner Linebarger made 46 starts at third base and ranked third on the team with a .320 batting average, while collecting 11 doubles, three home runs and reaching base at a clip of .394. Also on the left side of the infield last year was shortstop Caje Golden, who broke the GNAC freshman home run record with nine long balls in 45 starts and earned second-team all-GNAC.
“Having Caje, Conner, and Ryan back in the infield definitely makes it an area we have improved because of that experience,” said Sutton. “They were young last year and we threw them into the fire, but they performed well. Now they are all in a position to help us tremendously, and all three of them will be impact players once again.”
In addition to the three returning starters, MSUB welcomes true freshman Wyatt Setian as a standout shortstop from Post Falls High School in Idaho. Senior transfer Chase Teter is also expected to see a major role, and junior Kaleo Johnson has a projectable offensive upside at a corner infield position.
Injuries plagued the Yellowjacket catching corps a year ago, with three different players experiencing season-ending setbacks at different points in the 2017 campaign. Veteran Landon Peterson is back after catching just eight games before a knee injury, and Kade Hall returns after his first year at MSUB was cut short with a .300 average, four home runs, and 20 RBIs through 24 games. Andrew Schleusner was called upon to plug the gap behind the plate, and gained valuable experience with 21 starts as a true freshman last year.
“We feel as comfortable at catcher as we do at any position, as we have three guys who could all start,” Sutton commented on the trio of returners. “With Schleusner defensively, Landon with his leadership, and Kade being a do-it-all player, all three of them will get time behind the plate. Having depth there will help us stay healthy, and all those guys can contribute offensively as well.”
While the ‘Jackets lost first-team all-conference outfielders Casey Merritt and Zach Robinson to graduation, an influx of talent will fill those spots flanking Garcia. Junior Matt Dillon is coming off a year in which he saw action in 35 games, and Ryan Hansen, Blake Bell, and Sam Mitchell are all projected to have an impact this year.
MSUB took a hit with the loss of first-team all-GNAC right-hander Cody Cooper after last year, and will also need to replace the likes of Bryon Baker and Tanner Watson on the mound. Jared Winslow, Steen Fredrickson, and Tristan Shockley return as key arms for MSUB, who could each see time as a starter. Fredrickson has the most experience of any returning pitcher with 37 2/3 innings pitched last year, while Shockley checked in with 31 2/3 innings and made a pair of starts. Winslow, in his third year as a hurler, has racked up 65 2/3 innings and eight wins during his tenure as a ‘Jacket.
“Looking at our rotation, we have a handful of guys who will get opportunities,” said Sutton. “Steen and Jared are the two who saw the most innings last year, and both have a chance to be at the front end of the staff. Tristan came on and got hot at the end of the year for us, and is a veteran who we will rely on as well.”
Out of the bullpen, Sam Muskat had a promising debut campaign and will return as a left specialist. Muskat saw time in 12 games last year, tallying 17 strikeouts in 25 1/3 innings pitched. Corbin Smith could be another key contributor after missing most of last year with an injury, and MSUB will look to senior Michael Gahan to pick up where he left off with an impressive 1.69 ERA in 5 1/3 innings at the end of 2017.
“The bullpen was really an area we identified to add depth, and guys like Corbin and Sam are our glue who we will lean on heavily,” said Sutton. “There are going to be a lot of guys who will need to fit into different roles, but we feel a lot more comfortable about the depth we have in the bullpen compared to last year.”
New to the staff this year is a bevy of talent, as MSUB looks to improve on its team earned run average of 6.13 from a season ago. Junior Tanner Cantwell will be a two-way threat as a left-handed pitcher and first baseman, and Sam Wong is another left-hander the ‘Jackets may rely on. Right-handers Carson Woolery and Zach Johnson figure to compete for starts, and senior transfer Travis Edgar is a frontrunner for a key spot at the back end of the bullpen.
“With Sam and Tanner being two lefties coming in, that will add a different look for us,” said Sutton on the new arms. “Travis has the ability to be a late-inning shutdown guy as well.”
Ryan Wright returns for his second season as assistant coach, while Grant Hamilton is in his first year working primarily as a pitching coach and former Northwest Nazarene University catcher Spencer Pollock is on staff as a graduate assistant coach. “Ryan did a tremendous job with the hitters last year, and he creates a calm feel the helps them keep their confidence,” commented Sutton. “The addition of Grant and Spencer has been tremendous for our guys, especially with the pitching and catching groups.”
All home games and select road contests throughout the 2018 season will feature live video with play-by-play commentary, and live statistics, available online through MSUB’s Stretch Internet portal here.