Valley hardball: Vaqueros welcome No. 16 Oklahoma State to start 2019 campaign

EDINBURG — With some of the area’s coldest weather of the year hopefully in the rearview mirror, the gloves and bats at UTRGV are ready for game action.

Baseball season has descended upon the Rio Grande Valley.

Even though baseball at the diamond on the corner of Sugar and Schunior has seen struggles in recent seasons, there is plenty of room for optimism and growth in coach Derek Matlock’s second season at the helm.

Offseason growth will be put to the test this weekend when the No. 16-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys visit the RGV. First pitch Friday is set for 7 p.m. while Saturday’s game begins at 2 p.m. and the series wraps up with a noon start Sunday.

Right-handed senior pitcher Chase Adams is expected to start the season opener.

“I think the biggest is the word ‘culture’ because I think there are a lot more expectations,” Matlock said. “The longer you do something, it’s easier for guys to understand it. They’re a lot better at playing the game we’re asking them to play because a core of them have been doing it.”

Friday’s opponents have a long history in Edinburg. Even though the clubs haven’t played since UTPA became UTRGV, the Cowboys made their first trip to the RGV in 1976. The legacy Broncs had a 15-7 home record over the Cowboys and the all-time series is 17-12 in favor of UTRGV/UTPA/Pan American.

The programs last met in 2014 when OSU edged UTPA 7-6 in the rubber match of a three-game set.

The hiring of former West Virginia assistant Derek Matlock was a leap back toward relevance, but he is aware that Rome wasn’t built in a day. He’s just hoping to string together enough good days for long-term improvement.

Conrado Diaz, a catcher from San Diego, is a new addition to the club and will bolster depth at the position. Concerns over his size, his 5-foot-9-inch listing on the roster might be generous, had a lot to do with him playing at Trinidad State junior college.

Diaz established himself as a powerful offensive weapon. He hit .490 as a sophomore with an impressive .620 on-base percentage.

“Here (at UTRGV) you just have all the help from your coaches, they tell you what to do because it’s the best for you. Since I got here, I felt a good vibe on this team,” Diaz said. “We feel like a family, we have each other’s back. If you do things right or wrong, they’re going to be here for you.”

UTRGV has only enjoyed two winning seasons since the turn of the millennium. First in 2000 under coach Reggie Treadway and then in 2012 under Manny Mantrana who recorded a 210-247-1 record from 2009-2017.

Coleman Grubbs, a native of Denton, was added to the roster in 2018 as a juco transfer. The move worked out for both the outfielder and his new team.

Grubbs led the team in batting average in his first season, hitting .329. He was first on the team in hits (73) and total bases (95), second in doubles (11), runs scored (33) and tied for second with 26 RBIs with Ivan Estella behind Austin Siener. Both of those players were seniors in 2018.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to play (NCAA) Div. I baseball,” Grubbs said. “Coming out of high school I never really thought I’d get the chance to do this. It was a huge jump from junior college to here. Collectively as a team, I think we’re going to be super good. I can’t wait to get it going.”

Along with Oklahoma State during opening weekend, the Vaqueros will test their mettle against several power-five opponents. Their annual date with Texas is set for March 5 at Disch-Falk Field in Austin. In March the Vaqueros will also face the Kansas State Wildcats from March 12-15.

UTRGV will face Texas A&M Corpus Christi three times. The second meeting will be on the eve of conference play March 19 and once more May 14.

Road games against TCU (March 26) and Texas Tech (April 30-May 1) will serve as mid-week tests in the midst of the conference slate.

Andy Atwood will be a part of the team’s improved infield. The Oregon State transfer sat out last season and will be recharged as a redshirt-junior.

“That break really was good for my body but it was also good for my mind,” Atwood said. “Now, coming back I think not only me but our whole team has a really deep fire and we’re ready.”

The top six of nine schools by WAC records advance to the end-of-season tournament at the Oakland A’s spring training park in Mesa, Ariz. to decide which program earns the lone NCAA Tournament bid.

UTRGV or UTPA hasn’t qualified for the WAC tournament since its first season in the conference in 2014. The Broncs didn’t win a game during the tournament.
Matlock said ambition as a program is key to reaching unfamiliar heights.

“We develop a master plan to go win the WAC, that’s what we’re trying to do,” Matlock said. “Yeah, we want to get in the tournament no doubt but if you don’t shoot for it you’re not going to get it. We want a championship, that’s what we play for.”

nmata@themonitor.com