Former Astros great Lance Berkman begins the task of turning the HBU baseball team into a winner

Lance Berkman has no benchmark for how the Houston Baptist Huskies compare to other college baseball teams.

The former major league slugger returned to a program with a high degree of uncertainty. Aside from All-Southland pre-season player Brennen Bales, Berkman isn’t quite sure what to expect from the Huskies, who open their 2022 season on Friday with the start of a three-game home set against Rutgers.

“I think everything will be fine,” said Berkman, who took over from Jared Moon in late May. “It’s hard to know without coaching experience at this level (NCAA Division I). It’s hard to handicap what you have compared to… I don’t know, because I haven’t seen anyone else.

“What we are going to do at the start of the season is continue to assess and assess and see who is right where. This first year, there is a lot of learning, a lot of information gathering. But we have staff who are going to be a good competitive team.

The spearhead of the attack will be Bales. A first baseman in 2021, he hit a team-high .356 with 22 RBIs and 23 runs, beating .380 in the conference. He also led the Huskies in OPS (.885), slugging (.469), on-base percentage (.416) and hits (57).

Berkman is counting on Bales to help change the fortunes of HBU, which finished bottom of Southland’s 13-team squad last season. Bales will definitely be in the lineup, but it’s unclear if he plays first base or designated hitter.

Aside from Bales, the only players who have solidified their positions are third baseman Reed Chumley, a transfer from Cisco College who will strike in the middle of the lineup, and shortstop Diego Davila, a transfer from Alvin JC which will play an important role. Beyond those three players, there will be a lot of mixing and matching.

As for big boppers, receiver Tyler LaRue, son of former major leaguer Jason LaRue, can hit the ball as far as anyone on the team. Infielder Matt Crossley is also capable of hitting the ball out of the stadium.

The team is close to a 50-50 split between returnees and newcomers. The Huskies were chosen to tie for seventh place, the last spot, in the league’s preseason poll. A lot of that is based on last year’s 14-38 record, 11-27 in SLC.

“We will be significantly improved from last year,” said Berkman, who won a TAPPS 4A state title during his four years as head coach at Second Baptist and served as an assistant for a season at the University of St. Thomas. “Just from a personal perspective, we’re going to be better off doing nothing but writing the lineup and stepping back.

“I expect our pitching staff to be good enough to keep us in most games, and our offense to be good enough to pressure the other team.”

Clay VanderLaan and Tyler Bremer will assist Berkman.

Right-hander Daxton Tinker, the most effective returning starter, gets the go-ahead in Game 1 against the Big Ten opponent. The rotation also includes right-hander Will Ripoll, who started his career at LSU. Right-hander Jared Burch and left-hander Austin Spinney are in the game.

“This coaching staff, like the pitching team, has been revolutionized in our approach to the game,” said Burch, who will start on Sunday. “We’re going to start hammering the area more. That should be crucial for us – throwing strikes.

The closest from last year, Andrew Reitmeyer, remains in this role. The right-hander throws a heavy ball and has developed off-speed throws to complement the fastball. Looking at last year’s pitching stats, they’re not good. High ERAs and high walk rates abounded.

“I expected to come here where the closet was empty in terms of pitching,” Berkman said. “But the biggest pleasant surprise for me is that we have quality weapons.”

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