Westmont College hopes to pick up where it left off last baseball season when the COVID-19 pandemic ended its drive toward a Golden State Athletic Conference championship.
The Warriors, ranked No. 13 in the NAIA preseason poll, will play host to No. 24 Lewis-Clark State of Lewiston, Idaho in a 2 p.m. game. They will also face Saint Katherine at 2 p.m. on Friday before taking on No. 19 Benedictine, Ariz. in an 11 a.m. double-header on Saturday.
“Lewis-Clark State is rich in tradition and has won 19 national championships, so this should give us a good idea of where we’re at,” Westmont coach Robert Ruiz said.
The restrictions imposed because of the pandemic have made predictions a more difficult proposition this spring.
The Warriors were ranked 17th last year with an 18-9 record and held a two-game lead in the GSAC standings when play was halted. They had won seven of their last eight games.
But several of their starting pitchers graduated, while closer Bailey Reid signed with the Chicago Cubs.
“We graduated quite a few pitchers the last two years,” Ruiz said. “We have a lot of young arms in our bullpen. Even in our starting rotation, we’ll have two redshirt freshmen.
“We do look to be very talented. It all depends on the learning curve, adjusting to the speed of the game in college. I anticipate that there are going to be some growing pains early.”
He will send a veteran to the mound today in Jameson Kruger, a 6-foot-3 senior who transferred to Westmont last year from the College of San Mateo.
Kruger went 4-0 last season with an earned run average of 1.38. He struck out 35 batters in 39 innings and allowed a batting average of just .147 to rank 13th in the NAIA. His average of hits allowed per nine innings of 4.62 ranked 16th.
“Jameson is super-efficient with his pitch count and gets a lot of ground balls,” Ruiz said. “He got his first start as a Warrior against Lewis-Clark State in Arizona last year, and I remember it being a very competitive start even though he got a no-decision.”
Kruger pitched a three-hitter over six innings, giving up just one earned run while striking out eight in a game Lewis-Clark rallied to win, 7-4.
Chad Stoner, a sophomore transfer from Clark College, will start Friday’s game against Saint Katherine. Redshirt freshman Parker O’Neil and sophomore Ryan Humphreys will get the call for Saturday’s double-header.
Humphreys had a tough-luck freshman season, going 1-5 despite a 3.37 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 27 innings.
“He has huge upside,” Ruiz said.
He is also high on lefthander Will Anderson, a senior who went 1-0 with a 3.94 ERA in 11 relief appearances last year.
They’ll be pitching to Bailey Reid’s younger brother, Simon, who batted .333 last year with a team-leading on-base percentage of .440.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a freshman catcher impact the team the way he did,” Ruiz said. “He was an unbelievable leader and competitor. He had an unreal first year.
“I’m really excited for him and his future.”
Westmont returns a veteran outfield with seniors Drew Bayard (team-best 20 runs) and Devin Perez (.269, team-best nine home runs), plus redshirt junior Daniel Netz (.263, four homers).
John Jensen, a senior transfer from UC Irvine, provides even more punch to the Westmont outfield. Jensen, an All-CIF Division 2 player at Santa Barbara High and the Western State Conference Player of the Year at Santa Barbara City College, has returned to town after batting .286 for the Anteaters last year.
“He had a tremendous fall and he stands to be an impact player for us,” Ruiz said.
Two of the Warriors’ top three hitters last year, second baseman Taylor Garcia and first baseman Travis Vander Molen, have both graduated. But Ruiz still likes his options on the infield.
He’s moving sophomore Brady Renck (.275, 15 runs, 12 RBIs) to second base and bringing in highly regarded sophomore Robbie Haws to play shortstop. Haws batted .329 with a .477 on-base percentage for Irvine Valley Community College last year.
“We do return quite a few position players,” Ruiz pointed out. “There’s still a fair amount of competition. Nothing is set in stone.
“Alex Stufft, a senior, played third base last year and is the likely contender there (.267 with six doubles in 2020).
“We’ll have two or three players rotating between first base and the designated hitter position. We’re fortunate to have depth, maturity and experience.”
The dark cloud of COVID-19 makes depth and versatility prime commodities this season.
“We got in a fall season and had ample training time to get the guys ready,” Ruiz said. “But it comes down to the questions of can we stay healthy, and will we have a full roster available every week?
“We’re asking our players to be comfortable in being uncomfortable, where you may have to play out of position. We’ve been cross-training guys in multiple positions, getting guys to play a variety of roles, so that when the situation presents itself, it doesn’t create panic.
“We’ve got to do the best job we can to keep safe and healthy to give ourselves the chance to finish out a full season.”
That would be a lot more than they got last year.