Every team tries to play with an edge. For Texas A&M, the painful way in which the 2015 season ended has provided a razor-sharp focus for the team's returning players and coaches.
The Aggies' 16-inning loss to TCU in the final game of the Fort Worth Super Regional was the longest deciding game since the NCAA's current playoff format was instituted in 2000. Only twice before had a trip to the College World Series been decided in extra innings (Arkansas won a 10-inning game in 2012 and Arizona won in 11 innings in 2004). Add in the fact that an unearned run ended the team's chances at a berth in Omaha, and it's no surprise that A&M enters 2016 with a definitive edge.
"So many returners have a bitter taste in their mouth," said head coach Rob Childress. "To be so close but so far away from our ultimate goal, which is to go to Omaha and compete for a national championship (was not fun). You can't be much closer than we were last year. With the collective group that we have back, I can sense and feel that they are going to give each other their very best. The fall was very, very good from a leadership standpoint, and that has carried over into the preseason work we have done this spring."
A&M has made waves in the preseason, appearing in the top five of several polls.
How will this team justify its high rankings and what many pundits predict is a season destined for a trip to the College World Series?
The Aggies have depth and experience on the mound and at the plate, and they have worked hard to improve a defense that was solid but struggled at times during the second half of the season.
A&M's offensive attack flourished under the first-year tutelage of assistant coach and "offensive coordinator" Will Bolt in 2015. The offense returns six players who started more than half the season in 2015. A&M hit .299 with 70 home runs and a staggering 401 RBI, all significant improvements from the previous season when the team combined for 25 home runs and 298 RBI.
The Aggies had fewer at bats than any team in the SEC last year but led the conference in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, while ranking second in batting average, hits, homeruns and scoring.
"Strength up the middle is a great place to start," said Childress. "We have our quarterback back in catcher Michael Barash, and he is an energy giver. We will start the season with Nick Banks in centerfield, and he is as talented as anyone in the league. Ryne Birk will start at second. He had an amazing year for us last year, and we expect an even better year from him this year. We know we will have a freshman shortstop who will be very talented. Whether it's George Janca or Alan Campero, he will be surrounded by three guys who have 11 years of collective experience around them and can get them pointed in the right direction."
In Search of Omaha
The A&M roster features plenty of proven talent. Junior outfielder Nick Banks was a star in 2015 after posting a .364 batting average and 48 RBI to earn a spot on several All-SEC and All-America lists. In the infield, catcher Michael Barash remains an emotional leader for the Aggies. Second baseman Ryne Birk, started 62 of 63 games last year and tied for the team lead in home runs in an offense that smashed 70 long balls in 2015.
Banks was a consensus All-American after hitting .364 with 8 home runs and 48 RBI and played the past two summers on Team USA. Moving to center field full time after manning right field for the Aggies, Banks is a true five-tool player--hitting for average, hitting for power, superb base running skills and speed, throwing ability and fielding ability.
Banks knew the move to center would test him physically, and reports from preseason camp say he in the best shape of his Aggie career.
After splitting time at both infield corner positions his first two years in Aggieland, senior Hunter Melton started 41 times at first base last year and hit .300 with 8 home runs and 37 RBI. Powerful Ronnie Gideon, a junior, is also in the mix at first.
"Melton had a great fall and an amazing start to the spring with his hitting approach. When you couple that with the power he has, he is scary," said Childress. "When you have to go through those two guys three or four times a game, it can really take a lot out of a pitching staff. Gideon has even more power, so it is just about his consistency. When he is locked in on his approach he is awfully tough to deal with, so those two are going to be the cornerstone of our lineup."
Birk tied for the team lead with 10 home runs last year, but his biggest improvement this offseason has been his play at second base. Birk is a leader by example on and off the field, and coaches say he is the first to arrive, last to leave and has the dirtiest uniform in the clubhouse.
There are also two newcomers, Boomer White and Joel Davis, who should see plenty of opportunities at the plate.
The last time White played in a college game, he was starting for TCU in the 2014 College World Series. The Daily Oklahoman named him Big 12 Player of the Year after hitting .315 with 49 RBI that season. White spent most of his time in the outfield for the Horned Frogs but is slated to start at third base this season for the Aggies.
"We moved White onto the dirt, and he was strong at third base all fall and all spring," said Childress. "He is always in the right place at the right time. He takes care of the baseball and always knows where it is supposed to go. Offensively, he is a special hitter, and I know our pitching staff has a tough time getting him out on a consistent basis."
Davis transferred from Seminole State College in Oklahoma after piling up 25 homeruns and 123 RBI during his two seasons as a starter in both the infield and outfield. Childress said Davis is in the mix to be an opening day starter in the outfield where there is fierce competition between veterans and newcomers to start in both right and left field.
Texas A&M baseball will wear a sticker on its batting helmets this season to honor the life of longtime Olsen Field at Blue Bell Park caretaker Leo Goertz, who died Dec. 7 at age 55.
Goertz was a mainstay around A&M baseball since 1978, when he began working as a student manager. The Aggie players and coaches want to ensure his unending dedication to Aggie baseball will not be forgotten.
"He was one of the patriarchs for Texas A&M athletics," said head coach Rob Childress. "When you talk about turf management across the country and not just Texas A&M, Leo was the one that everyone came to consult when they had an issue or wanted to make their surface as nice as ours. To be able to have his name on our helmets will show everyone that he was not just an important part of our baseball program, but he was also an important part of Texas A&M University."
"There will be opportunities early for left-handed hitters Blake Kopetsky and Davis," said Childress. "We have right-handed experience with J.B. Moss, Jonathon Moroney and newcomer Walker Pennington. It will all be about showing consistency from an offensive standpoint since they are all very good defenders. Nick Choruby is probably as gifted defensively as any of them."
Pennington spent last season at San Jacinto Junior College where he was a Junior College All-American. His .420 average and impressive 65 runs batted in helped the Gators to the Junior College World Series.
On the mound, the Aggies might have their deepest pitching staff in Childress' tenure.
Despite having to replace two weekend starters and professional draft picks in Grayson Long and Matt Kent, the team is reloading. It helps that A&M will feature a deep bullpen to take some pressure off of the team's starters.
"We can hand the ball off to two of the best power arms in the country in Ryan Hendrix and Mark Ecker," said Childress. "We can ask one of them to go seven outs one day and give them a day off the next day while using the other as closer. They are great friends, and I think they feed off each other."
The duo combined to throw the final 8.2 innings against TCU last year in the face of intense pressure. Ecker finished the season with a 1-2 record, eight saves and 36 strikeouts in 33 innings. He has improved his secondary pitches this year and Childress reports that he is now more of a pitcher than a thrower.
Hendrix, who started five games, was 6-4 with five saves while striking out 69 in 59 innings. He spent the summer with Banks on Team USA and was part of a no-hitter against the powerful Cuban National Team.
Andrew Vinson, the team leader in ERA in 2015, is another key reliever. He maintained a 5-2 record to go with five saves while making an SEC-leading 35 appearances.
Vinson picked up a key save against Texas Southern in the first game of the College Station Regional and won an elimination game just two days later against Costal Carolina. One key lefthander is Ty Schlottmann, a former closer who has 64 career relief appearances.
Childress will sort through a mixture of returnees and talented newcomers to find starting pitchers for four, and occasionally five, starts each week.
"Kyle Simonds has continued to develop his breaking ball and is giving himself an opportunity to start," said Childress. "(Sophomore transfer) Jace Vines was a true blessing getting him as late as we did in the summer with the pitching losses we had in the draft. He has maturity and command, and like Simonds, he pitches with outstanding sink. Tyler Ivey might have had as good a fall as any pitcher we have had in the 10 years that I have been here."
The Aggies' SEC schedule is loaded, as would be expected in the nation's premier baseball conference. A&M has a road series against top-ranked Florida as well as a Thursday-to-Saturday series at Blue Bell Park against World Series contenders Vanderbilt (2014 national champion and 2015 runner-up) and always dangerous LSU.
"There are no layups in this league," said Childress. "From an RPI standpoint when you look up the rankings at the end of the season, our RPI will be in the top five or 10 in the country.
"With what our expectations are as a program, we appreciate that our team, our athletic department and our university get some recognition before we start the season. The fact that there is a lot of buzz about our baseball program...our guys have been through that before, but we understand it is where you finish and not where you start."
Scott Clendenin, class of 1989, is a member of the Texas A&M baseball broadcast team.
When it comes down to it, education is the most important thing someone can have, and student-athletes give so much of their time and talents to our school. If we can help support them to earn that diploma and Aggie ring, then that is what we want to do."