Barnett looking forward to new season with Pack

RENO - Nobody has to remind Brian Barnett of his three days of misery in Mesa last May.

"I've thought about it a lot, pretty much all the time," the Nevada Wolf Pack outfielder said recently of his first Western Athletic Conference tournament experience in Arizona last spring. "I don't think I've stopped thinking about it yet."

How torturous was the WAC postseason baseball tournament for the former McQueen High and Western Nevada College slugger?

Barnett went 0-for-16 with nine strikeouts at Hohokam Stadium.

It gets worse.

He went to the plate 17 times and got on base just twice - on a walk and an error. There were 10 runners on base combined in eight of those 17 plate appearance and he failed to advance any of them. He struck out the last six times he came to the plate with a runner on base.

"It kind of snowballed a little on me," Barnett said. "The more I struggled, the more I wanted to do."

And the less he accomplished.

It might seem like cruel and unusual punishment to bring Barnett's three days of Mesa misery back to life as the Wolf Pack prepares to open a new season on Feb. 18 at UC Irvine. Barnett, after all, turned in one of the most productive and powerful offensive seasons in Wolf Pack history last year with 18 homers and 71 RBI en route to a .348 average.

The 22-year-old, though, is quick to remind anyone that will listen that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. And the last thing Barnett wants to do this season is repeat the events of those last three games in May.

"I'm going to carry it with me throughout this season and use it as motivation," he said. "I want to take something positive out of it."

It was just a strange Twilight Zone sort of three days for him Mesa.

Almost half (eight) of his 17 plate appearances came as a leadoff hitter (he was 0-for-7 with a walk). And, in his defense, it wasn't like he was the only Pack hitter to wilt under the Arizona heat. Shaun Kort went 2-for-10, Brock Stassi went 2-for-12 and Westley Moss was 0-for-10. The four of them (Barnett, Kort, Stassi and Moss) were a combined 4-for-48 with no RBI.

But that's baseball. It happens. And Barnett is determined not to allow it to happen again.

"I learned a lot from it," he said.

Wolf Pack coach Gary Powers chalks it up to just that -- a painful learning lesson.

"He just wasn't swinging at his pitch," Powers said. "He was swinging at pitchers' pitches. His biggest thing is pitch selection. Good pitchers will take advantage of a very aggressive hitter. He just has to learn how to be more patient up there and not get away from what made him successful."

Powers said all of the things that make Barnett a dangerous hitter - an aggressive, full-speed-ahead approach, unyielding confidence and a willingness to put his team on his back - are the things that hurt him last May.

"He just kept putting more and more pressure on himself," Powers said.

Part of Barnett's frustration late last May stemmed from the fact that he went into the tournament as one of the hottest hitters in the country.

In six games from May 16-23 against Sacramento State, UC Davis and Louisiana Tech, Barnett terrorized opposing pitchers. He was 13-for-23 (.565) with seven homers, 22 RBI and 12 runs scored. He hit at least one home run and drove in at least two runs in five of the six games.

"I was coming off a real hot week and I just think they (pitchers) didn't want to let me hurt them," Barnett said.

He didn't see many strikes in Mesa.

"He was kind of a marked man up there," Powers said. "They were going to do everything they could so that he couldn't beat them."

That's because Barnett beat them all year long.

His 18 homers were second in the WAC (Fresno State's Jordan Ribera had 27) and his 71 RBI led the conference, making him the first Pack player to lead the WAC in RBI since Kevin Kouzmanoff (67) in 2003. He was fourth in the WAC in slugging at .701 and second in total bases at 157.

"He had a tremendous season," Powers said. "You can't ask for more."

Barnett, who scored 101 runs, hit 21 homers and drove in 96 over two seasons (2008-09) and 120 games at Western Nevada College, put himself in the Wolf Pack record book in his first season at Nevada, making a seamless transition from WNC's wood bat league to the metal bats of Division I.

His 18 homers are tied for the fourth most in Pack history and are the most by a Pack player since Shawn Scobee had 22 in 2006. His 71 RBIs are the most by a Pack player since the school joined the WAC in 2001 and the most at Nevada since Matt Ortiz drove in 76 in 2000.

Those last three games of the season were the only time all season he went more than two straight games without a hit. He led the Pack with 25 multiple-hit games and 17 multiple-RBI games.

"I had confidence in what I could do at this level from what I did the past two seasons (at Western Nevada)," said Barnett, who slammed 23 homers his senior year at McQueen. "I was pretty happy with it and I thought I had a pretty good year. But you always feel you can do better."

Barnett, who hit from fourth to sixth in the Pack order last year, had his most success at Peccole Park a year ago, drilling 14 of his 18 homers at home. He did not hit a homer in the Pack's first eight games (30 at-bats) of the season, all on the road, and then promptly homered in his first home game on March 5.

For the year, Barnett hit .380 at home (.326 on the road) in 25 games, scored 31 runs and drove in 42. In eight more games and 40 more at-bats on the road he scored 10 fewer runs (21) drove in 13 fewer (29) and hit 14 fewer homers (4).

"This is a great place to hit," Barnett said.

Barnett, who struck out a Wolf Pack-record 64 times, was without question one of the most productive players in the country when he made contact in 2010. Barnett hit .488 when he put the ball in play with one home run every 8.9 at-bats and one RBI every 2.3 at-bats. In WAC games he was even more productive, hitting .527 with one homer every 7.2 at-bats and one RBI every 2.3 at-bats.

Can he put more balls in play in 2011?

That's the plan.

There is precedent for a Pack home run hitter with a propensity to strike out making vast improvement from one year to the next. Scobee struck out 60 times in 163 at-bats in 2005 and hit .258 with 18 homers and 39 RBI. The next year Scobee cut his strikeouts to 47 (170 at-bats) and upped his average to .371 while hitting 22 homers and driving in 53.

If Barnett makes the same kind of improvement, he could have one of the all-time great seasons in Pack history.

"It drives me crazy," said Barnett of his strikeouts. "I can't go away from my strengths as a hitter but I do need to make some adjustments. It's all just mental. When that happens in bunches like that, I'm just not swinging at my pitch."

Powers doesn't worry all that much about Barnett's strikeouts. The last thing he wants, after all, is his power hitter choking up on the bat and trying to punch ground balls through the infield.

"That's what powerful hitters do," the Pack coach said. "They strike out once in a while."

Barnett, Powers said, simply does what his team needs. Last year his job was to play right field, hit the ball out of the park and drive in runs.

This year his job will likely remain the same, with a possible slight alteration.

"He came to us and volunteered to play second base if we needed him to do that for us," said Powers, who currently is trying a pair of freshman at second (Rick Schu and Loren Gardner-Young). "For a guy who is an established player at another position (right field) and volunteer to move just to help the team says a lot about his character and competitiveness. He just wants to help this team win any way he can."

That's why such things as strikeouts and three-day slumps in the Arizona desert hardly concern Powers at all when it comes to a player like Barnett.

"I never worry about Brian Barnett coming to the park everyday and being ready to compete," Powers said.

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