Juco : : Story
Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Salt Lake Emerges From Pack

Allan Simpson        

March 29, 2011

Salt Lake Emerges From Pack
To Claim No. 1 National Rank

Two years ago, Howard (Texas) College nearly ran the table in the junior-college ranks by winning 57 straight games on its way to capturing the Junior College World Series championship. A year ago, a Bryce Harper-led Southern Nevada squad occupied the No. 1 spot nationally most of the season.

As for the first half of 2011, the junior-college season has been marked by rank inconsistency at the top of the polls. For the fourth straight time, a new team occupies the No. 1 spot in the latest combined Perfect Game USA / National Junior College Athletic Association rankings.

Utah’s Salt Lake CC, on the strength of a 30-2 record, is the latest team to take over the top spot, succeeding Florida’s Miami-Dade College, which succeeded Santa Fe (Fla.), which succeeded pre-season No. 1 Howard. How far have the Bruins come this season? They weren’t even ranked in the top 50 nationally to start the year.

So unpredictable has the 2011 junior-college season been that two other teams in the top five in the latest rankings, in addition to Salt Lake, were also unranked to start the year. No. 3 Grayson County (Texas) and No. 4 Polk State (Fla.) have been the other surprise teams to crack the top of the polls. Meanwhile, No 2 Chattanooga State (Tenn.) began the year at No. 23 and No. 5 Santa Fe (Fla.) opened at No. 30.

None of those teams has been quite as hot, though, as Salt Lake, which reeled off 25 straight wins at one point, including a four-game sweep of Southern Nevada in Scenic West Conference play.

“I knew in the fall that we had a pretty tough team,” Salt Lake coach David Nelson said, “mainly because we really competed well against a tough schedule. And we have played well. It’s the best group I’ve ever had here, mainly because it is so competitive.

“We haven’t always gotten consistent production out of our 1-9 hitters at any one time and our top four starters have pitched well as a unit on maybe only one weekend, but we’ve found a way to consistently grind out quality at-bats and come up with big pitches when we need them.”

Salt Lake’s roster hasn’t made scouts beat a path this spring to Utah, traditionally not a baseball hotbed. It is made up primarily of local high-school products, but includes a nice mix of freshmen and sophomores, transfers from four-year schools and, perhaps most notably, a number of players who have returned to the school after being away on Mormon missions.

Bruins righthander Adam Gunn is one such player who was on a mission for the last two years. He was the conference pitcher of the year as a freshman in 2008, and has hardly skipped a beat after being away from the program since. He immediately resumed his role as the team’s ace, and has gone 5-0, 1.53. Sophomore lefthander Tyson Memmott has matched Gunn pitch for pitch, going 5-0, 1.86, while freshman righthander A.J. Carman, a Washington State transfer, has gone 3-0, 2.36.

Sophomore Josh Mooney is the other member of Salt Lake’s all-Utah-bred weekend rotation, and even as the 6-foot-4, 185-pound righthander has suffered both his team’s losses while assembling a 4-2, 3.49 record overall, he is regarded as the best professional prospect on the Bruins roster. He leads the staff in strikeouts, with 36 in 28 innings.

“His fastball has been clocked up to 94,” Nelson said, “but the most significant part of his development this spring is he’s really become a more complete pitcher. He’s learned how to throw his slider and changeup for strikes, and get his pitches down in the zone.

Perhaps the most-intriguing arm on the Salt Lake staff belongs to 6-foot-5 freshman righthander Ruddy Acosta, a native of Hermosillo, Mexico. He pitched for San Diego’s Mount Miguel High over his final three years of high school, and represents the only noteworthy non-Utah player on the roster. As a sophomore, Acosta’s fastball routinely touched 94-95 mph and he projected then to be one of the top prep arms in the 2010 draft.

But as his fastball lost significant velocity over the next two years, he was passed over in last year’s draft altogether. Even as a freshman in the fall at Salt Lake, Acosta was clocked as low as 83 mph. This spring, his fastball typically has been 87-88 mph, occasionally touching 90, and he has gone 3-0, 0.75 with 31 strikeouts in 24 innings in a swing role for the Bears.

“His mechanics were very stiff when we first got him,” Nelson said, “but we’ve ironed out some of that stiffness, and his delivery has become much smoother. The looser he gets, the faster he gets, and he throws a heavy fastball in the upper-80s with good deception. He’s done a nice job of mixing his pitches and keeping his fastball low in the zone. He’ll continue to get better as he learns how to use his body.”

While Salt Lake has posted a cumulative 2.22 staff ERA, it has also gotten maximum mileage out of an offense that revolves mostly around speed.

Arizona State-bound sophomore shortstop Kyle Bilbrey (.382-0-25, 15 SB), and freshmen outfielders Braden Anderson (.407-1-27, 11 SB) and Dominique Taylor (.378-2-31, 9 SB), all products of Utah high schools, have been clocked in the 6.4-6.5-second range over 60 yards and hit in the top four spots in the Bruins batting order. It’s Bilbrey and Anderson, in particular, that set the prolific Salt Lake offense in motion.

“Bilbrey’s done exceptionally well as a leadoff hitter,” Nelson said. “His speed is a significant asset, he puts the ball in play consistently, doesn’t chase balls and has begun driving balls to the gaps consistently. Anderson is the same type of player, and may be even faster than Bilbrey. He also might be the most competitive individual I have ever coached.”

Through it all, the Bruins leading hitter has been sophomore outfielder Cory Raymond (.442-2-19), yet another Utah high-school product who transferred to Salt Lake from Lamar University at the Christmas break. The team’s ERA leader has been freshman closer Tanner Banks (2-0, 0.50, 4 SV).

With so much production from so many different players, it seems incomprehensible that Salt Lake was on the outside looking in to start the 2011 season. But that speaks to the very unpredictable nature of this junior-college season.

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