bleedCrimson.net: With such a new ball club who do you expect to fill out the lineup?
Brian Green: We’ll start on the mound. We could start six guys just in terms of guys who have the capability, the potential, the durability to start and give you five or potentially six innings. We feel like we have six guys. With the opening weekend having four games, we’re going to go with Riley Barr who was one of the top guys in appearances last year. He’s a senior right-hander and he’ll start the opening game. Robert Kraft is a senior left-handed pitcher, probably been our best guy over the fall and the spring in keeping our hitters off balance. He’ll start the second game. The third guy will be Matt Loeffler, he’s a senior right-handed pitcher. He’s got great movement. Then the fourth game will be Billy Connard who didn’t pitch last year He’s got a good arm and he’s got a chance to be a pro prospect just given his body and potential for velocity. So those will be our four starters entering this but that could change next week very easily with Trey Gonsalez, he’s right there, potential to be a starter. He’ll open up as a long reliever, a guy who has potential to give us substantial innings. Same thing with Trey Higginbotham. Trey’s a big key for us. When his command is on he’s very tough to hit. At some point in the year you’ll probably see him starting too. We really feel like we have six guys who we’ll hand the ball off to.
Early on in the season Matt Moriarty is a guy we think can be our closer. Matthew Stein is a senior right-hander, a great student, a great thinker, knows what he’s doing. He’s really competitive. He’ll get substantial appearances on the mound. Kyle Rutherford, Lincoln Herendeen, Alex Lownes, Tyler Aguirre, Quinten Mansfield, those are all guys that’ll come in in the middle innings and go short stint relief appearances.
bc.net: From the starting group and the two guys you mentioned as potential starters. When you were evaluating this fall when you came in, was there anything that stood out to you about those guys and was there anything you maybe had to change mechanically with them?
BG: Well with regards to the mechanics that’s a Coach Mangrum question. I can tell you the things he’s done with them. He’s a great pitching coach, and he’s done some very simple things with some of the guys. He’s going to tell you that a lot of it is lower half and around the core of their body base just in terms of what they do with their feet and their hips and how it affects their arm.
The biggest thing I was concerned with as the head coach in terms of who was going to start was who can keep pitch counts down, who can keep it at the bottom of the zone, who can command a second pitch and most importantly to me is just the presence they have on the mound. When you give the ball to a guy who is going to start off the game and set the tempo for your team, if he’s not walking around with some serious moxie, competing a pitch at a time, not getting down on himself if he gives up a hit or a run but just has a positive demeanor and a competitive look about him, we told our pitchers those are the things that are really important as a staff. The three keys for you to pitch are have real command and body language on the mound, control the running game and have the ability to throw a second pitch. Those four and dot dot dot five and six, those were the guys that were the best at that in the fall for potential starters.
bc.net: Trey Higginbotham is a guy you mentioned, when his command is on he’s very, very good and he’s obviously had some command issues in the past and maybe some confidence issues. How do you take a guy like that and how do you help build him back up?
BG: I think just be dead honest with him and when he does a great job tell him. I don’t think there’s any other way to go about it when there’s somebody where self doubt that creeps in or something goes against you that you immediately start thinking the wrong thoughts. We would read things in the fall like Training Camp or The Shark and the Goldfish to try to teach our guys about perspective and you really have a choice in everything that happens to either look at something positively or negatively. I think Trey has done a great job in that aspect but I think a lot of Trey’s issues with his command, and I think he would tell you the same thing, have a lot to do with what would happen between his ears and he is clearly skilled enough to do it. He had a tremendous outing in his last outing in the fall, the best since I’ve been here. We’re really optimistic about him going into the year and we told him that he can be a very, very important part of our team’s success.
bc.net: Let’s continue with the catchers.
BG: Kevin Carswell will start off as the guy. He’s done a great job of managing the staff. He understands tempo, he understands vocality. He’s probably our best blocker, he’s certainly our most accurate thrower. He’ll start off the year as our starter. Then Brent Hermanussen and Lucas Martinez will be the two and three guys. Brent has gotten really, really better with the bat. He’s shown flashes of being able to pull with power and Brent will play plenty. Lucas is right there, he’s pretty close to Brent in terms of the two and three guy. We’ll open the year with Kevin and then Lucas and Brent will compete to play. We’re excited about our core. We need to do a better job of being more accurate on the bases in terms of throwing. Kevin is by far the best at that so he’ll get the nod.
bc.net: Let’s work our way around the infield.
BG: We’ll open up the year, [Derek] Umphres will be at third. Derek’s done a good job, he’s gotten better, he’s made a legitimate attempt to be a better defender. It’s been really important to me. Phil Clark will back him up at third base. We really feel like we have a legitimate shortstop in a transfer that came in at the break in Dan Kennon. Dan’s a transfer from Pima Community College. He’s actually from Deming. He’s a tremendous defender. He’s probably one of the better defenders the program has had in years. We recruited him in August when we found out he wasn’t going to be going to Bethune-Cookman. Dan will open up as our shortstop. Matt Evans is right there in the mix as a middle infielder. Kyle Graf will start at second base in the opening game, along with A.J. Duran at second base. Those are our four middle infielders. Opening up on Friday, we’ll probably go with Dan and Kyle at second base but Matt and A.J. are right there. First base Mike Paulson is our second best returning player in terms of batting average. We’ll go into the year with him as our first baseman. Jake Hasbrouck has tremendous power who will back him up. We’ll probably play with him against left-handed pitching. Cameron Haskins is a left-handed bat who has a chance to play a platoon role offensively. He needs to get better defensively but he has a chance to have a role as a left-handed bat facing right-handed pitching. Ben Slater is probably the best defender aside from Mike [Evans] of the group. Ben’s a guy who is one of those tough-nosed, do anything you ask guys. Even in the infield we’re going to have a tough time playing everybody. We’re going into this thing, nobody ran away with a job except maybe Umphres, Carswell, maybe Quinnton Mack in center field. Very, very competitive fall. You’re going to see a ton of lineups. Whoever we play on Friday, game three is going to look different.
In the outfield, we have six outfielders that can play. Quinnton Mack is our best athlete. Daniel Johnson is a transfer from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, who was here, went to NEO and came back. He’ll play. Joe Koerper is going to play, Kyle Young is going to play and you have Michael Barrientos and Brycen Campbell backing them up. We’ve got five outfielders we can play at any time along with Jay Sheeley who transferred from Glendale College who is certainly going to be in the mix. He’s one of our better runners.
bc.net: Having that amount of depth at the positions and good competition between guys has to make you feel like can only make you better as a team.
BG: Yeah and that’s what makes our team a little bit interesting and I think that’s why the coaches picked us in the middle. I think we were picked tied for 6th with UTPA, we’re not going to blow you away with skill level or pure athleticism. I think it has a chance to make us very good. Our skill level is very close position to position. If somebody lets off the gas pedal, we can very easily put somebody else in there on a daily basis. That for me is very exciting. I think it’ll keep guys on their toes and it should force guys to do things right if they want to be a part of this thing and do something special.
bc.net: Who are some guys you brought in who you are looking to have an impact right away?
BG: When I got the job in August we had about three weeks to go before school started so we didn’t have a whole lot of time but Jay Sheeley is going to make an impact. Junior college guy from Glendale. Very good offensive player, worked in the fall in shortstop, looks like his best position is in the outfield which is what he played at junior college. He’s got a chance to be a guy who will play a lot for us. He can steal a base, he can put a bunt down, get you a tough at bat. Phil Clark is going to contribute as a utility guy whether it’s backing up Umphres at third, playing first, moving into the outfield, he’ll give you a very competitive at bat. Then Dan Kennon is a guy who we didn’t think was going to play for us this year then next thing you know we clear a waiver with the NCAA and he’s playing for us. He’s a really good player, he can flat out play shortstop. He’s going to be one of the best defenders in the league. If we didn’t have Dan it would have drastically changed our depth defensively. He’ll make an impact for sure.
bc.net: You’ve obviously put a tremendous amount of emphasis on defense. As a former player at New Mexico State, how much of an advantage has it been as a coaching staff to have that level of familiarity with the ballpark and its nuances?
BG: I think it’s huge. I don’t think that from a strategy standpoint as to how we’re going to do things offensively. Just from a recruiting standpoint knowing that the ballpark has a chance to play offensive until you get it turfed or you laser-level the field and change the dynamics of it, it’s offensive. When I played here we had a great offensive team but other teams would out-defend and out-pitch us. I think the park in itself will allow for offense to happen so we place a lot more emphasis on defense and pitching in practice and we certainly place a lot more on it in recruiting. For me it’s let the park play how it is. We hit .360 in the fall as a team but go get pitching and defense so when you go on the road you have an opportunity. And you have a chance, when the wind’s howling out, maybe our pitching is a little bit better. That’s the goal. That’s where I hope we can take it to.
bc.net: How do you see things shaking out in the batting order at least early on?
BG: On Friday, we’ll lead off Dan Kennon, we’ll hit Paulson in the 2-hole, Umphres in the 3-hole, Mack in the four, Young in the five, Koerper in the six, Carswell in the seven, Graf in the eight and Sheeley in the nine and that’s if we see a right-handed pitcher. If we see a left we’ll have a different DH, maybe Hermanussen, maybe Hasbrouck. You could see Daniel Johnson in the outfield as well but if nothing changes those are the guys I’d probably have as the starting lineup in game one of the year but we’ll have different lineups throughout. I would think Umphres is a mainstay being our top returning hitter, I think Paulson is going to play every day, he had a great fall, he’s swung the bat fairly well.
bc.net: What have you seen as far as continuity through the batting lineup and how is the team in terms of speed?
BG: We don’t have much speed. I know that, I’m aware of it. It’s kind of station to station. Mack’s got a chance to run, Young’s got a chance to run and Sheeley has a chance to run. Those are our three that can run. Daniel Johnson can run, I’m not sure if he knows how to steal a base yet, we’re working on it. You’ll see a little more action out of us but given our personnel you won’t see a lot more action just because we’re not built that way yet from a roster standpoint.
Culturally it’s been great. I’m really happy with where that part is. The team’s been tight, they’ve been happy, they’ve been optimistic. I’ve really enjoyed it.
bc.net: Through the fall and right before you open up the season, what has been the biggest positive surprise for you?
BG: The most pleasant surprise has been the buy-in of the players, the welcoming of the players and the community to our coaching staff being new. Any time you’re replacing somebody who’s been here for 18 years and has a tremendous amount of history here. The biggest surprise has been how open armed both the team and community has been. It’s been a complete honor for me.
bc.net: Taking a look at the schedule you have a very competitive non-conference schedule.
BG: I think it’s really tough. It’s as competitive a schedule as you can put together for us. To go on the road the first two weekends against a perennial Top 25 program in Lamar and Illinois and you look at Oregon and they’re a Super Regional type of team, I think it’s extremely tough. I think it’ll be a great challenge for us. We’re going to a couple of parks that we’re not built for. I’m excited about that because we’re probably going to be playing some low-scoring games which will prepare us for later on.
bc.net: As you go into the opening weekend what are some things you’ll excel at and what are some things you know you’re not very good at but expect to get better throughout the season?
BG: I think we have a really good handle on who we are. What you don’t know is how you’re going to react when you get hit in the mouth and whether you’re going to compete or not. That’s something I can’t predict and I’m really interested in seeing. As a team how are we going to react if we get down in the third, are we going to fight, are we going to cave?
From a roster standpoint, we don’t have a lot of swing and miss on the mound, we don’t have a lot of range on the infield but we play catch pretty well on defense which we’re happy about. I expect to put the ball in play on offensively but again you just don’t know. You’re facing a new team and a new environment and a new year. You just don’t know. Those are the things I’m interested to see our kids react to as we get started.
bc.net: Aside from wins and losses, what would make this a successful weekend for your team?
BG: I want it to feel good. That’s what I told our kids. I want it to feel good and I don’t mean happy-go-lucky laugher, I just want to be able to look each other in the eye and say we did everything we could to win the game, we put New Mexico State above ourselves and we competed our ass off. That’s the most important thing to me. If we can go out a pitch at a time, I know it’s cliche, but it’s so important and really enjoy the essence of competition and over time we’ve got a chance to be a good club.