Hoping the Big West Conference doesn’t prove to be quicksand for UC Davis, Aggie coach Matt Vaughn has a game plan to keep his charges moving through the ranks of one of the nation’s toughest baseball leagues.
After the Aggies went 23-31 this spring, their 7-17 Big West record put them seventh in the nine-team circuit.
Those numbers are a step forward for a team that was 19-37 (5-22 in league) a year ago, but a far cry from the four conference squads — champ Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine and Long Beach State — that made the NCAA postseason (which begins Friday).
At the beginning of 2014, UCD was picked by media and coaches to finish dead last again. Improvement noted.
“We play good baseball. We really do,” said Vaughn, the longtime Aggie coach and ex-player who finished his third year at the helm. “How many one-run games did we lose? We were competitive … in almost every, single game.”
About those one-run games: UCD lost nine. It won six. Had the Aggies gone 5-4 in those cliff-hanging setbacks, they would have been 28-26. For the record, UCD hasn’t had a winning baseball season since 2008, when the Rex Peters-led Aggies went 35-24 and made a regional appearance before bowing to Stanford.
So how do the Aggies join the postseason discussion again?
“We have to throw strikes,” Vaughn explained, adding: “And we have to do a better job of coaching the details.”
Vaughn, who is meeting with coaches this week to pore over the volumes of statistics that accompany the national pastime, pointed to several areas that need to be repaired before another postseason opportunity blooms.
* Walks killed UCD. Aggie pitchers coughed up 215 free passes (32 more than second-worst Cal Poly). Their walk total was 132 more than Cal State Fullerton.
* Getting the big out was a problem. While opposing batters hit only .259, the walks put pressure on the local staff. Averaging but 5.49 strikeouts a game (worst in the Big West) contributed to Aggie foes outscoring UCD, 257-228.
* Keeping runners at bay was sketchy. Only cellar-dweller Hawaii (55) allowed more steals on the season than the Aggies (49).
“We have to find a way to win more of those close games,” said Vaughn, who doubles as pitching coach.
And the discussion led back to throwing more strikes.
“The other thing the walks suggest is that you’re behind in a lot of counts … so hitters are hitting in a lot of advantageous counts. When that happens, their averages go up.”
Despite the losing record, there were plenty of bright spots …
Senior Steven Patterson hit .326 with a .451 slugging percentage. Solid at second base, Patterson joined junior outfielder Kevin Barker in the second tier of the All-Big West team.
Slugger Nick Lynch, reliever Zach Stone, catcher Spencer Brann and infielder Adam Young earned honorable mention.
Barker (.335), Lynch (.308 with team-high four homers and 34 RBI) and freshman closer Stone (3-4, 3.14 ERA, nine saves) all return.
Combine that with sophomore outfielder Tanner Bily’s breakout .372 average and the pitching of other freshmen Justin Mullins (1-0, 2.97) and Orlando Razo (2-4, 1.34) — and the return of junior Spencer Koopmans (4-3, 2.84) — and some of those areas of Aggie concern hint at being strengths next spring.
But losing Patterson leaves a gaping hole in the infield and UCD’s psyche.
“You don’t replace a player like him,” Vaughn told The Enterprise. “You only hope that (the team) does what we call ‘picking up the rope’ and all pull in the same direction.
“Steven Patterson was the foundation we built our team on the last two years. If you need to look at … what Patterson meant to this team, just look at the four weekends he wasn’t able to play for us.”
Patterson suffered an ankle injury when he was plunked by a pitch in a 15-7 Sacramento State rout of the Aggies at Dobbins Field on April 15. It wasn’t until May 13 that Patterson retired to the lineup. That day, UCD beat the Hornets, 6-3, at Raley Field.
Without Patterson, the locals went 5-9.
“We were an ascending team before he took that ball in the foot,” the coach promised.
Another part of the Aggies’ challenge in the Big West is competing with others schools’ facilities.
Vaughn believes in the world of Division I athletics, amenities mean a lot in recruiting the right stuff. And UCD Director of Athletics Terry Tumey agrees.
Vaughn says covered batting cages, a clubhouse and lighting are high priorities.
“Do we really need lights to win baseball games?” Vaughn asks. He thinks they could increase attendance and give flexibility to practice.
“A clubhouse?” he adds. “Believe me, this is just where college baseball is at right now — and it’s a huge recruiting disadvantage for us when a kid comes on campus and we can’t show him a clubhouse.”
But Vaughn and his Aggies know a clubhouse isn’t required to win on the field.
And those covered cages?
“Those can give you a competitive advantage,” Vaughn says, adding that the priorities for the stadium are yet to be determined — but officially should come soon.
“We have a great alumni base. When the time comes and we start putting together a campaign for something to go out there, I think there’s a lot of people who will help.”
Meanwhile, all the help will come on the field.
Notes: Vaughn says he’ll have a handful of meaningful incoming players to announce as soon as admission paperwork clears. Meanwhile, he and his staff will continue to look this summer for game-changers. … Returning Aggies are getting ready to report to collegiate summer leagues across the nation. … Tumey on baseball: “We feel our baseball program is really on the rise and we feel very good about our leadership. Baseball is a very challenging sport here in the west. So we need to step up our game in order to provide a platform for (baseball) to excel. In no particular order, we’re looking to get lights, covered batting cages and a clubhouse.” … Tumey announced Thursday that La Rue Field — home of the Aggie softball team — will get lights and a complete facelift in time for the 2015 season.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-320-4456