Linsey Craig, UVU Athletics
Could they do it again?
That was the question facing UVU baseball after the 2012 team notched a national best 47 wins, including 40 out of its last 41 games of the season. Weakness of schedule left the Wolverines on the outside looking in for the NCAA baseball championship field, but college baseball had been put on notice.
Utah Valley University, it turned out, could play ball.
Results, however, led to raised expectations. They didn't come from just outsiders, either. Holdovers from last year's squad and newcomers to the program were eager to prove 2012 wasn't a fluke.
Too eager, it turns out.
"That was a big thing," center fielder Jordy Hart admitted. "We had this big expectation to do what we did last year. I think that makes a lot of the younger guys nervous and a lot of the older guys, too. It definitely makes things harder."
The results were mixed. For the second year in a row, UVU stamped a win over a top-10 team on its resume, courtesy of defending national champion Arizona.
Unlike last season, this year's victory over the Wildcats came on the road. Another difference was the score. Last season's team won by putting up seven runs on the scoreboard, while this year's win was a grind-it-out affair ending in a 3-1 final.
That, more than anything, is the biggest difference a year has made. Many of UVU's sluggers from 2012 are gone, including San Diego Padres draft pick Goose Gallunki. Last season's team boasted eight batters batting over .300.
This season? Just two.
"We don't have the type of hitters (we had last year)," pitcher Adam Gunn said. "We lost a lot of guys last year.
The Wolverines started the season swinging, anyway, but the early results proved the same game plan would not and could not provide the same results with this year's roster. UVU suffered three different losing streaks of at least three games, including a six-game slide with losses to in-state rivals BYU and Utah sandwiching a winless four-game series at Cal State Northridge.
UVU scored just 12 runs in that six-game stretch. To put that in perspective, the 2012 Wolverines logged 29 games with at least 10 runs.
"They felt like, in the past, they could just stand in there and hack away and we'll hit some home runs," UVU head coach Eric Madsen said. "That's not the case with this team. It's a different team. They're going to have to produce multiple hits and take advantage of the way they play."
Change was needed. Utah Valley started tailoring its at-bat approach to the skills of the players rather than to the reputation of 2012.
Hart in particular has shifted his plan at the plate. The 5-foot-7 outfielder stood out as a slugger at Westlake High School but was one of two Wolverine regulars to hit under .300 last season. The UVU coaching staff has since focused on using his speed out of the box, refining his bunting game to manufacture runners — rather than go all-out for runs.
"I wasn't too familiar with bunting," Hart admitted. "In high school I just swung away. (Madsen) saw the potential for a lot of base hits, so he made me do it a lot. Most other guys are taking one or two bunts in pre-game batting practice and he makes me take three or four. He really pushes it."
The practice paid off last Thursday against Houston Baptist, when Hart laid down two left-side bunts before beating the throw to first for a pair of in-field singles.
Madsen said onlookers can expect more of the same from Hart as the season progresses.
"We've told (Hart), 'you have two to three bunts a night just because of how fast you are,’ ” Madsen said.
Gunn said that "small-ball" will become for this year's Wolverines what the home run was for their 2012 predecessors.
"Instead of relying on the long ball and the big hits, we've got to play for that run see more wins at 5-1 instead of last year where we averaged almost 10 runs a game," Gunn said.
The results have been encouraging. UVU has won four of its last five games heading into Tuesday's game against Utah, the team that snapped the Wolverines' 32-game win streak last year.
That game is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. at Brent Brown Ballpark in Orem.
Matt Petersen is the sports Web editor for DeseretNews.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheMattPetersen.
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