Knudson: 2012 Anything but a Normal Baseball Season
By Mark Knudson, The Mtn. InsiderMay 10, 2012
This was never going to be a normal college baseball season in the Mountain West. With only five teams total and four qualifying for the postseason tournament, it was bound to be, well, quirky. And that was before the first pitch was thrown.
The season started out with the news that Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn would miss the first month of the season after a relapse of his oral cancer. Gwynn’s surgery was successful and he’s returned to the bench on a limited basis. He wasn’t the only key contributor to be missing at the start of the season. Injuries seemed to strike more key players this year than ever before.
During the preseason, New Mexico’s Luke Campbell was sidelined for the season. The senior standout looked outstanding in practice before he was hit in the eye by a ball that sliced off his bat and fractured an orbital bone. He redshirted. Air Force lost their best pitcher, Sean Carley, to season-ending Tommy John Surgery on the eve the Falcons’ season opener at LSU. Carley spent the rest of the year rehabbing in Florida and the hope is he will return for next season.
TCU started the season without standout third baseman Jansen Witte, who had surgery to repair a minor tear in his hip labrum – an injury he suffered in the fall. He missed the first five weeks of the season and provided a big spark in the Frogs offense when he returned to the lineup. UNLV lost second basemen Scott Dysinger early in the season to a hand injury that contributed to the Rebels sluggish start.
Once the season started, San Diego State’s opening night starter, lefty Cole Swanson, who was poised for a big year, was felled by an appendectomy. As the season draws to a close, Swanson is back throwing on a limited basis, being used out of the bullpen for the time being. And while being out for less than two weeks may not seem like all that much, when Air Force lost catcher Garrett Custons in midseason, the team took a collective kick in the, well, you know. Custons missed the pivotal three-game set at Las Vegas, which included two one-run contests as the Falcons were swept. That could be the difference in AFA not making the Conference tournament.
It wasn’t all about the injuries. Some things can’t be explained, like why New Mexico, which seemed to have a lot of momentum going into 2012, stumbled out of the gate in the non-conference schedule. No longer wet behind the ears and no longer facing that same gauntlet of road games against some of the nation’s best programs, everything seemed to be aligned right for the Lobos to bust out. Didn’t happen. They struggled through a 2-9 start and didn’t get back over .500 until April. Much different story in the Conference season, of course, where the Lobos have been stellar on the mound and, as usual, at the plate.
With TCU in rebuilding mode early in the season and playing a number of true freshman, the Frogs also failed to post a great non-conference record. The result is a so-so RPI, which comes into play for the team that does not win the Conference tournament and still hopes for a bid to the NCAA tournament. Unlike previous years, TCU is not a sure-fire lock for an at-large bid. They’ve improved their RPI to a respectable 35 but that makes them a bubble team. New Mexico, meanwhile, is at #83. They can make some hay in a late season series with New Mexico State (RPI #26) but must win the tournament to guarantee a post-season berth.
Then there is the, well, unexplainable. For instance, New Mexico hadn’t lost to Air Force in 20 games, dating back to 2006. The Lobos rolled into Colorado Springs in early April and promptly pounded the Falcons 19-0 and 17-2 in the first two games of the series, making it a 22-game win streak. The wind was blowing out, and the Lobos were crushing the ball. Then, in game three, with the conditions exactly the same, Air Force starting pitcher Evan Abrecht stepped to the hill and proceeded to toss a four-hit shutout, beating the Lobos 1-0. Really.
The quirky didn’t end there. Air Force was only able to schedule 12 home games for the entire season. Nine of those are Conference games, meaning they only got three non-conference home games. The road slate included games on three coasts: the East, the Gulf and the West. While they tallied four neutral site wins, including taking two of three against Navy, the Falcons didn’t win a true road game until Ben Bertelson shut out Kansas 3-0 on May 5.
With two weeks left in the regular season, expect some more strange stuff to happen before the Conference tourney, which will be unique in its own way.
See all of Mark Knudson's blog entries HERE