COUGARS #13 IN PRESEASON BASEBALL POLL-
Open 2016 Campaign with #9 Riverside
SAN LUIS OBISPO (January 26, 2016)— The Cuesta baseball team is set to begin its 14th season under Coach Bob Miller (330-214-2/14th). The Cougars are ranked #13 in the pre-season poll and last spring reached the post-season for the 19th time in the past 20 seasons. The Cougars return seven players from last season and the roster boasts fourteen players with a season of collegiate baseball under their belt. The Cougars are once again loaded with talent and hope to avoid the injury bug that plagued their 2015 campaign. Coach Miller says, “We are looking to build on last year and take a step forward,” he continued, “We need to be competing at a high level day in, day out. We need to show consistency. And keep healthy.” The Cougars will be tested early in the season with their first 14 games coming against ranked opponents, including 11 against the Top 10. Coach Miller says, “We are ready to get underway. It is a challenging pre-season. We hope to be in a position to compete for a (Western State) conference title (by the end of the year).”
The Cougars will open the 2016 campaign with a two-game homestand against four-time California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA) State Champion Riverside. The Tigers enter the season ranked 9th in the California Community College Baseball Coaches Association (CCCBCA) Pre-season Poll. The Cougars and Bengals open the season on Thursday (1 PM) and also play Friday (1 PM).
The Cougars biggest strength begins the season as its biggest mystery. Coach Miller says, “We are a work in progress. We are over coming some injuries and obstacles, but at 100% we will have options.” The Cougars have four sophomores back who have spent time in the rotation, but three of them redshirted in 2015. Miller says, “We are not rushing our pitching into roles. We will prepare and allow them to grow into them. This could be our best quality pitching depth in my 14 years.” 2016 Pre-season All American and 2015 All Western State Conference (WSC) First Team selection Brendan Jenkins (Pleasanton) is slated as the Cougars’ opening day starter. Jenkins, who has signed with University of San Francisco for 2017, set a Cuesta record with three shutouts and a streak of 37 consecutive scoreless innings. He was 7-3 on the year with a 1.80 ERA. Miller says, “He is a good #1. He is consistent and throws strikes.” University of San Francisco transfer Louis Raymond (Laguna Niguel) left the Dons after his freshman season to play for the Cougars, He was expected to compete for a roster spot for the Dons in 2015, but was limited to 2.1 innings over two appearances and posted a 15.43 ERA. He should have the opportunity to earn a rotation spot this season. Sophomore Anthony Baleto (Martinez) was shutdown after six starts in 2014 and sat out all of 2015. He was 1-4 with a 4.33 ERA over 35.1 innings as a freshman. Miller says, “He had a good year off. His velocity is up from his freshman season.” 2014 All-WSC First Teamer Nick Burnham (Pleasant Hill) earned those honors as an outfielder, but his arm strength will be a valuable asset in the rotation or out of the bullpen. He pitched in ten games, making five starts, and was 1-3 with a 10.72 ERA over 22.2 innings. Miller says, “He is a versatile guy, but his bat is more important. He may begin (the season coming) out of the bullpen.” Sophomore Neil Uskali (Westlake Village) hurled only three innings last season and posted a 15.00 ERA. He is one of the staff’s most improved players, with command of three pitches. Sophomore Scott Romuk (Granite Bay HS) led the Cougars with 18 appearances, including three starts, and four saves in 2014. He posted 1-3 record and a 4.80 ERA, but sat out last season with injuries. Miller says, “He is a projectable guy with tons of upside, but (with Baleto and Burnham) they are all back finding a spot.” The Cougars’ pitching development will be interesting to watch this spring, but luckily Burnham, who led the team with a .342 batting average in 2014, is the only one projected to take on dual roles. Jenkins, Baleto and Romuk combined for a .121 batting average over 33 at-bats as freshmen and are projected for purely pitching roles.
The Cougars’ bullpen will be determined by the development of the starting rotation, but has the potential to be another team strength. 2015 All-WSC Reliever Dan Beavers (Los Osos: Morro Bay HS) has earned the confidence of the coaching staff after a strong second half in 2015. Beavers served as the Cougars’ long relief and set-up man and Coach Miller says, “He is always in attack-mode. He is a high energy guy and wants the ball when the game is on the line.” Beavers made 14 appearances and hurled 25 innings with a 2.52 ERA in 2015. Beavers is expected to revive his long relief role and hand the ball off to either 2014 Cuesta Save leader Scott Romuk (Granite Bay HS) or 2014 All-WSC First Teamer Nick Burnham (Pleasant Hill). The Cougars’ bullpen is also stocked with young untested arms with the potential to earn important innings on the mount. All-SLO County choice Jake Niezen (SLO HS) redshirted last season and joins fellow right-handers Kyle McCormick (Thousand Oaks), Kyle Maynes (Lake Oswego, OR), Connor Davis (El Dorado Hills) and Anthony Nonini (Fresno) to provide bullpen depth. McCormick was Newbury Park High’s Pitcher of the year as a senior, while Maynes and Davis both earned all-league honors as preps. Outfielders Cayce Rocco (Santa Maria: Righetti HS) and Will Ruiz (Delano) can also be called to the mound. Rocco, who earned a Medical Redshirt after six games in 2015, is the only left-hander on the staff. Coach Miller says, “He throws hard, but is still learning.” Ruiz was a closer in high school.
The Cougars pitching staff will be in good hands with 2015 WSC Gold Glove Catcher TK McWhertor (Costa Mesa). McWhertor caught nearly every inning last spring and was a fixture in the middle of the batting order. Coach Miller says of his all-WSC 2nd Team Backstop, “It is nice to return a leadership player. His presence should be a plus for us. A good defensive catcher, who can hit!” McWhertor’s defense earned a lot of accolades, but he was also second on the team with a .310 batting average and was third on the team with 19 RBI. 2014 All-SLO pick Nate Javine (Atascadero HS) will begin the season on the disabled list, but he will provide quality depth when he gets back. Utility player Stephen Chipman (Pleasanton) has been working behind the plate in his absence.
The Cougars have not solidified first base and plan to begin the season using a platoon of Sophomores Andrew Pifferini (Fresno) and Travis Bos (Fresno). Pifferini was the Cougars’ fourth outfielder last year, but moves to the infield this season. He hit .077 in 13 at bats as a freshman, but as the left-handed side of the platoon he will have more opportunities in 2016. Bos played at Fresno City in 2015 and hit .154 in 13 at bats, including a double and a home run. Coach Miller says, “They will either DH or play first base. They both have power.” Former all-SLO County choice Robbie Silva (Arroyo Grande HS) and Freshman Grant Woodward (Claremont) form another right-left platoon off the bench and will add depth at first base.
Three versatile newcomers enter the season vying for the second base spot for the Cougars. Two-time all-League selection Jacob George (Tracy HS), all-League pick Todd Valliere (Auburn) and, two-time league champion John Nejedly (Concord) will all have a chance to win the spot. Coach Miller says, “George is a heady player and has experience at a high level. He can play anywhere in the infield.” Valliere and Nejedly can both also play second or third base. Nejedly can also play the outfield.
Two-time All San Bernardino County pick Hunter Reade (Yucaipa HS) is the Cougars’ third baseman. Coach Miller says, “He is a middle of the order bat. He has power and an advanced hitting approach.” Jacob George (Tracy HS), Todd Valliere (Auburn) and, John Nejedly (Concord) will all back up Reade.
2015 All-WSC Second Team Infielder Garrett Giovannelli (SLO HS) is back in the pivot for the Cougars. Giovanelli began last season at second base, but his move to shortstop coincided with the Cougars’ late surge for a playoff spot. He will bat near the top of the order and help ignite the offense. He led the Cougars in runs scored (27) and stolen bases (10) last year, while hitting .266. Coach Miller says, “He has the tools to play at a high level. “ Jacob George (Tracy HS) will back up Giovanelli.
2015 All-WSC Honorable Mention selection Dustin Miller (Concord) is back in centerfield and the top of the Cougars’ batting order. Miller has great range in the outfield and is known for his great reads of the bat. He also works the count well at the leadoff spot and hit .259 as a freshman. Coach Miller says, “He will anchor the outfield and leadoff. He covers a lot of ground in the outfield and has been showing more power at the plate.” Freshman Brad Caraccioli (Salinas) can also play centerfield.
Freshmen Cayce Rocco (Santa Maria: Righetti HS) and Brad Caraccioli (Salinas) are scheduled to platoon in rightfield. Rocco hit .154 in 13 at bats in 2015, before earning a medical redshirt after getting injured six games into the campaign. Rocco is a unique and important part of the Cuesta roster; he is the lone switch-hitter and only left-handed pitcher on the roster. Caraccioli has good range and can play anywhere in the outfield. He is also expected to add some power to the Cougars’ batting order.
All Kern County performer Will Ruiz (Delano) begins the season in leftfield for the Cougars, but will have to hold off a pair of veterans returning from their redshirt season. Ruiz hit well in the pre-season and is expected to hit for power. 2014 All-WSC First Team Outfielder Nick Burnham (Pleasant Hill) and 2014 All-WSC Honorable Mention Outfielder Nick Rutckyj (Surrey, CAN) are both back after redshirting in 2015. Burnham is a versatile player and may also spend time in the rotation or in rightfield, where he played the bulk of his innings in 2014. He will have an impact wherever he plays. In 2014, Burnham led the Cougars with a .342 average and boasted a .484 on-base percentage, however he had only two extra-base hits. Rutckyj has been struggling with injuries the past two years, but should be back to form in 2016. He led the 2014 team with 11 doubles and three home runs, while also finishing second in both RBI (19) and runs scored (20). He batted .233 on the season.