Tabitha Sumsion, BYU Photo
Sophomore David Clawson waits for the pitch. He'll be on the receiving end of most of BYU's pitches for the 2018 season, first on the road in February before playing on new artificial turf at home in March.

With opening day approaching on Feb. 16, BYU baseball looks to secure its third-consecutive regular-season conference title and earn a second-straight NCAA Regional Tournament berth.

The Cougars finished last season ranked No. 7 in the nation in batting average (.319) and look to continue as an offensive powerhouse with several key hitters returning in 2018.

Senior Brennon Anderson (.346), who finished No. 3 in the nation in runs scored with 71, will be returning at second base. Junior Brock Hale will be back in right field. He was No. 5 nationally and led the West Coast Conference with a batting average of .395 in 2017.

Also returning in the outfield is junior Keaton Kringlen, who was named National Player of the Week and Rawlings WCC Player of the Week after hitting three home runs in a single game against Saint Mary’s on April 1. WCC 2017 Defensive Player of the Year, Daniel Schneemann (.317) will return for his junior season at shortstop, along with senior Nate Favero (.337) at first base or third base and sophomore David Clawson (.369) at catcher.

The final spots in the starting lineup are still up for grabs, with players battling throughout the fall. In center field, junior college transfer Jarrett Perns, a junior, and a now healthy sophomore returner Kyle Dean are battling for the starting job, with freshman Mitch McIntyre in the mix. Sophomore Paxton Larson and junior Casey Jacobsen are battling for third base, while junior Mackay Jacobsen, junior Brian Hsu and Dean are all in the running for the DH spot.

“We feel really good about our offensive potential,” BYU head baseball coach Mike Littlewood said. “We have a lineup full of guys who will put together professional at-bats and make it tough on opposing pitchers.”

The Cougars are looking to improve on the mound this season, with six pitchers returning and a strong group of recruits in the mix. Senior Hayden Rogers (9-2, 3.63) has secured a starting role. Freshman Ryan Brady and juniors Kenny Saenz, an Oklahoma transfer, and Jordan Wood are battling for weekend starting roles. The third pitcher in that rotation will be the midweek starter. Senior Kendall Motes will also battle for a spot in the starting rotation.

Littlewood will also have a lot of matchup options in the bullpen this year. Left-handers include senior Rhett Parkinson and junior Bo Burrup. Right-handers include junior college transfers Blake Inouye and Alex Perron, as well as returned missionary freshman James Barker. True freshmen Walker Sigman, Drew Zimmerman and Justin Sterner will have a chance to help the team in long or short relief. Senior left-hander Riley Gates (3-1, 2.30, three saves), along with sophomore newcomer Jake Suddreth, round out the back end of the bullpen as closers.

“We have much more depth on our staff this year, which will allow us to match up more efficiently against opposing hitters,” Littlewood said. “In the past, I’ve had to run certain guys out there for multiple innings out of necessity, but our competitive depth should alleviate that issue.”

There is additional excitement around the program this year as the decades-old sod field at Miller Park was replaced last summer with a state-of-the-art turf field. While the new turf looks stunning, the most valuable upgrade is the heating and drainage system that was installed underneath. The new system can melt three to four inches of snow and drain 19 inches of water per hour, allowing a lot more field time during the winter months. During construction, bullpens and batting cages were also expanded and a new bunting station was added, making Miller Park one of the best college baseball facilities in the country.

Littlewood has a five-year record of 157-115 (.577) at BYU, including 2016 and 2017 league titles and four WCC Tournament appearances. In 2017, he guided BYU to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002.

The Cougars start the 2018 season at Cal State Northridge in February, then travel to series at Hawaii and Auburn before opening the home season against Nebraska-Omaha on March 8.

Ralph R. Zobell has worked for BYU Athletic Media Relations in various capacities for over 30 years. You can view his bio at byucougars.com/staff/athletics/ralph-zobell or contact him at ralph_zobell@byu.edu.