Road warriors: Utes are off to best start since 1980, doing it all away from home

Utah baseball coach Gary Henderson (No. 20) high-fives players after the Utes defeated California Baptist at James W. Totman Stadium on Feb. 18, 2024. Ryan Gallant, Utah Athletics
Utah baseball coach Gary Henderson (No. 20) high-fives players after the Utes defeated California Baptist at James W. Totman Stadium on Feb. 18, 2024. Ryan Gallant, Utah Athletics | Ryan Gallant, Utah Athletics

For the Utah baseball program, opening the season on the road is old hat.

Due to winter weather in Salt Lake City, the Utes have historically played all of of their games in February and early March on the road, a trend continued this season.

The Utes’ first home game comes against BYU on March 12 at Smith’s Ballpark, but before then, every game is outside of Utah.

“I mean, when you’re traveling on the road weekend after weekend, you’re with each other 24/7 and you find out real quick that you got to have a little bit of patience being around 40 dudes at all times.”

Utah outfielder Kaden Carpenter

There is an upside to being road warriors to open the season, though. When you’re around your teammates and coaching staff virtually 24/7 for four consecutive weekends early in the year, it helps build camaraderie. On the plane, on the bus, at the hotel, at practice and at the games, the players see a lot of each other, and they say that chemistry-building has been a big part of their hot start this season.

The 2024 team dropped the first game of the season to Pepperdine, 1-0, then ripped off seven consecutive wins. It’s the best start to a season by a Utah baseball team since 1980, and the first seven-game win streak since 2008.

“You spend so much time with each other. It gives you a chance to know each other and see each other outside of just the baseball field. There’s the travel piece, obviously there’s the meals, the hotel, all those things that you don’t necessarily get when you’re at home,” said Utah manager Gary Henderson, who is entering his third season at the helm.

Sure, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows — when you’ve got 40 guys around each other all day, every day, patience can wear thin at times. For the most part, though, the team gets along well — and that’s translated into results on the field.

“I mean, when you’re traveling on the road weekend after weekend, you’re with each other 24/7 and you find out real quick that you got to have a little bit of patience being around 40 dudes at all times,” outfielder Kaden Carpenter said. “But we’ve found ways to really come together and bond with one another.”

“We got some traditions we do after wins on the bus, and we got a couple games that we have that are just all inclusive. Really, it’s just we’re a family and when you’re a family with 39 guys, it’s really easy to get along week after week when you’re playing on the road.”

The early-season success begins with pitching, which no doubt delights Henderson, a pitcher himself in his college days at San Diego State and someone who had stops as a pitching coach at a laundry list of universities, including Oregon State.

Utah pitcher Brett Porthan 2024
Utah right-handed pitcher Brett Porthan went seven innings in his first start as a Ute that resulted in a win over Pepperdine on Feb. 17, 2024, at Eddy D. Field Stadium. | Ryan Gallant, Utah Athletics

“For the most part, we’ve got very good starting pitching, so that always gives you a chance to stay in the game for a while,” Henderson said. “... In terms of the first eight games, we’ve done a really good job of pitching, throwing strikes out of the bullpen has been outstanding. Our team defense has been solid.”

Utah has held every team it has faced to five runs or less and its pitching staff has an ERA of 3.24, which ranks No. 22 in the nation. The starting rotation early on has consisted of Brett Porthan, Bryson Van Sickle, Merit Jones and Jaden Harris.

Porthan, who moved from Southern California to Tooele, Utah, when he was 17, has led the way, pitching 15 innings with an ERA of 1.8 and a .60 WHIP.

Working with Henderson, who sent 72 players to the MLB draft during his tenure at Kentucky, has been a major positive for the senior pitcher. Henderson helped him with taking deep breaths and visualizing before pitches, something he had never done prior to arriving at Utah.

“He’s very positive and he is able to really bring the team together and he’s able to calm pitchers down and he’s just a good mentor to have around,” Porthan said. “He’s had a lot of experiences on and off the field, and I really gravitate towards being around him. And of course, he’s an excellent pitch coach. He’s shown me a lot of new things to focus on while I’m pitching.”

The solid pitching performance has enabled the Utes to hang around in games and pull off some comeback victories.

“We’ve come from behind. ... When you do that, it creates an energy and a confidence that hopefully it can sustain you as you move through the season,” Henderson said.

Offensively, the Utes have been balanced at the plate — showing off power at times, but also displaying a willingness for small ball, as demonstrated in Utah’s 4-3 win in 11 innings against UC San Diego. Cameron Gurney and Michael Davinni both laid down bunts to secure the extra-innings victory for the Utes.

“We’re balanced. We’ve got some guys that can steal bases. We have bunted a lot, there’s no question about that. And we’ve also got guys that can hit doubles and homers,” Henderson said. “The middle of our order has got enough power that they can run a ball over the left fielder or the right fielder’s head, hit a double. We’ve got enough speed that we can steal a base when we need to, and we’ve spent enough time developing the bunting game that that’s something that we can use successfully if the situation warrants.”

Davinni leads the Utes with nine RBIs with a .357 batting average, while Kai Roberts has hit three doubles, a triple and a home run with a .343 batting average. Through seven games against Pepperdine, California Baptist, UC San Diego, Loyola Marymount, CSU Bakersfield and San Diego State, the Utes are outscoring their opposition 55-28.

A big part of the offensive success is that Utah has been able to capitalize with runners in scoring position.

“One thing that has helped us find success offensively is we call it red zone offense. It’s hitting with guys in scoring position and guys have competed really well in the box and just found a way to get the job done for the guys in scoring position,” Carpenter said.

Henderson is entering his 36th year coaching the college game, a history which stretches back to 1988 at San Diego State. His longest stint came at Kentucky, where he served as associate head coach from 2004-2008 before taking over as the head man from 2009-2016. He compiled a 258–199 overall record at Kentucky, with the Wildcats reaching the NCAA tournament regionals twice.

His wealth of experience has helped develop Utah’s players, including Carpenter, who called choosing to play for Utah “the best decision I’ve ever made.”

“He is definitely old school, but he finds a way to relate everything to life, which I love. He’s very blue collar, teaches us all the things we need to know to be successful, both on and off the field in academics, building work ethic. He raises his standards for everyone, holding us to a high standard and he has high expectations for everyone,” Carpenter said.

Utah continues its road stand with a three-game series at Cal Poly this weekend, then heads to Santa Clara for a one-off game before finishing the road trip with a three-game series at Washington State. Utah hosts BYU in its home opener on March 12 at 6 p.m. at Smith’s Ballpark.

Utah baseball team celebrates 2024
Utah players congratulates Drake Digiorno on a home run during the Utes' win over Loyola Marymount on Feb. 24, 2024, inside Tony Gwynn Stadium. | Ryan Gallant, Utah Athletics