Since arriving on the same dorm floor with Keith Price in 2009, the Huskies’ outfielder has had two knee surgeries plus a junior year on the bench. Now? He’s leading the Pac-12 with a .393 batting average, anchoring the nation’s No. 5 team into this weekend’s showdown at second-ranked Oregon State for the Pac-12 lead. “He’s why we love to coach,” Lindsay Meggs says.
By Gregg Bell
UW Athletics Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – Brian Wolfe is a Husky from a previous regime. Seemingly, a previous life.
He’s from the time when Washington’s field had port-a-potties and gravel around it. From when the baseball program was as stagnant as the water in the marshes behind Husky Ballpark’s left-field fence.
It only seems like decades ago.
The senior outfielder has been around UW so long, he and Keith Price were dorm neighbors during the school’s “LEAP” orientation for incoming freshmen. That was in the summer of 2009, months after the football team finished 0-12. It was the same month Lindsay Meggs arrived from Indiana State to build a new baseball program and matching ballpark at Washington.
“It’s funny, that whole class, they turned the corner in football,” Wolfe said this week, days before his fifth-ranked Huskies (37-11-1, 19-5 Pac-12) play at No. 2 Oregon State (38-8, 20-4) for the Pac-12 lead in what can justifiably be called the biggest series in UW’s baseball history.
“And now,” Wolfe says proudly, “baseball has turned the corner.”
Wolfe’s turned the longest corner of all.
First, the hometown guy from Snohomish endured the harsh turnover inherent in any coaching change. Then he missed 1½ seasons with not one but two knee surgeries. When he returned last year he was mostly on the bench as a pinch-hitter.
Now? Not only is Wolfe starting in the middle of the lineup for a team heading to its first NCAA tournament in 10 years, he is putting together one of Washington’s best seasons in two decades. He is on the cusp of leading the Huskies not only to their first league title since 1998 but to hosting their first NCAA tournament regionals -- ever.
He entered the week leading the Pac-12 with a .393 batting average, two points higher than Oregon State’s nationally acclaimed Michael Conforto. Wolfe has a chance for UW’s highest average since 1998 when Nick Stefonick hit .407.
Wolfe is second in the Pac-12 to Conforto with a .550 slugging percentage. He is fourth in on-base percentage at .456.
Not bad for a guy who was in the Huskies’ dugout for most of last season, and in their training room for most of two years before that.
And not bad at all for a guy who spent two months this spring excelling while with a cast on a now-healed broken thumb.
"Brian is what people think guys should be like when they talk about college athletics. He’s been hurt just about the entire time he’s been here. Yet he’s never given up. He’s never quit. He’s a good student and a great kid. He’s why we love to coach."
“Yeah,” Wolfe said Monday, laughing from a couch in the aptly named “Omaha Room” lounge on the second floor of the Gittinger Team Building at Husky Ballpark, “it’s been a crazy, weird ride.”
That ride has yet to peak. He’ll be batting fourth or fifth in the three games beginning Friday in Corvallis, in the final three regular-season games next week at home against defending national-champion UCLA -- and then perhaps a regional and even a super-regional inside two-month-old Husky Ballpark.
Now that’s crazy.
“Brian’s a great story,” Meggs says of his indefatigable outfielder/first baseman/designated hitter/whatever else is asked. “Brian is what people think guys should be like when they talk about college athletics. He’s been hurt just about the entire time he’s been here. Yet he’s never given up. He’s never quit. He’s a good student and a great kid. He’s why we love to coach.
“He’s been what we’ve had to be as a team: relentless. We’ve asked him to accept a lesser role before. And he’s accepted a lesser role.
“We had guys that didn’t want to be challenged or pushed. Well, we’ve challenged and pushed Brian.”
THE VALUE OF HOME
Wolfe’s latest injury epitomizes all he does for the Huskies.
March 30 at USC. UW is down 2-1 with a runner on first base in the fifth inning. Meggs tells his cleanup hitter to bunt. This, a day after Wolfe had hit two home runs and had eight RBIs against the Trojans. As Wolfe squares to bunt the pitch from USC’s Kyle Twomey zooms at his chest.
Wolfe instinctively opens his left hand, as if to catch the ball to protect his chest. The fastball slams into his hand and his bat simultaneously and then rolls toward first base. Wolfe gets the sacrifice bunt down, and breaks his thumb doing it.
The sacrifice (in more ways than one) allows UW to take the lead in an eventual, 8-3 win. It’s the Huskies’ 17th victory in 18 games.
A day later, Wolfe is named the Pac-12 player of the week for the second consecutive time. A day after that back in Seattle he gets fitted back for a bulky cast over the fractured thumb. Three days after that, in the home series opener against Oregon, he pulls his glove over his throbbing left hand, starts in right field, makes two putouts – and, oh, yeah, bangs out two more hits, including his fifth double of the season.
“I couldn’t grip the bat; I just hit like this,” Wolfe said, opening his left hand and pantomiming a one-hand swing with the other.
“It was the hardest game I’ve ever played in.”
It was another example of Wolfe following Meggs’ daily mantra to “stay in the moment.”
And what a moment this is.
The series Friday, Saturday and Sunday at sold-out Goss Stadium in Corvallis and next week at home against UCLA will determine whether the Huskies will win their first league title in 16 years. If they do, Washington will host an NCAA regional May 30-June 2. If they advance, a best-of-three super regional will likely be inside glittering, new Husky Ballpark June 6-9.
The top 16 seeds in the tournament host regionals. The top eight seeds, should they advance, host the best-of-three super regionals -- the last step before the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
The Huskies have never hosted an NCAA regional in eight postseason appearances. That was the intent behind getting the $15 million “Diamond on Montlake,” its adjoining team building and its performance center completed, to instantly become competitive not just for Pac-12 championships but national titles.
To truly be competitive for those means to host postseason games. UW now, for the first time, has the quality of both team and venue to do that.
How important are home games in the postseason? Since the NCAA baseball tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1999, 87 of 120 teams hosting a super regional have advanced to the College World Series. In all but two of the last 15 years a Pac-12 team that has hosted a super regional has made it to Omaha.
To put that another way: Since 1999, 72.5 percent of the teams that have hosted a super regional have advanced to the national-championship rounds.
|Year||No. of super-regional hosts to CWS|
|2013||4 of 8||including Oregon State|
|2012||5 of 8||including national champion Arizona|
|2011||7 of 8||including Cal|
|2010||5 of 8||including UCLA|
|2009||5 of 8||including Arizona State|
|2008||6 of 8|
|2007||7 of 8||including Arizona State, Oregon State|
|2006||6 of 8||including national champion Oregon State|
|2005||5 of 8||including Oregon State|
|2004||6 of 8|
|2003||6 of 8||including Stanford|
|2002||7 of 8||including Stanford|
|2001||7 of 8||including Stanford, USC|
|2000||5 of 8||including Stanford|
|1999||6 of 8||including Stanford|
So, yeah, these last six regular-season games are rather large.
The last time the Huskies won the conference, in 1998, the league was split in North and South divisions. The Huskies beat South-division winner Stanford in a best-of-three playoff for the Pac-10 title, then headed to College Station, Texas, the following week to play its regional of the NCAA tournament at Texas A&M. Because of its formerly, um, Spartan home field, Washington had no chance to host a regional then.
UW went 2-2 in that ’98 regional, losing to the host Aggies in an elimination game.
“Obviously, this weekend the results are going to mean a lot, in the end, to a lot of people,” Wolfe said. “But we didn’t just kind of appear here out of nowhere. This is what we’ve spent all year working toward: To be the best, to win the Pac-12 and host the regionals. So we have to take this next step, against the No. 2 – and in some polls No. 1 – team in the nation.
“We are excited about it. We are just going to go out there and play our game. Nobody expected us to be here. Now nobody is expecting us to take it from Oregon State. They are still looked at as THE team in the Northwest.
“We look at this as a great opportunity to once again prove people wrong. We love the opportunities to do that.”
“DO I WANT TO BE HERE?”
How could Wolfe have known?
How, as an all-state outfielder out of Snohomish High School recruited to UW by former coach Ken Knutson a half dozen years ago, could he have predicted he was starting the wildest, most transformative five years in Husky baseball history?
“I didn’t know what I was getting into when he came. I didn’t know what Coach Meggs was going to be like,” he says. “It was a shock as a freshman that had always had success. That freshman year was so hard. The conditioning. The mental burn. And also he’s trying to turn over the program, so he’s weeding out people that he knew weren’t right for the program or shouldn’t be there.”
Wolfe says “there were a lot of attitudes on the team that had to be changed, feelings of almost being entitled to be there.” He believes being a freshman – and then getting injured and watching more than half that season – allowed him “to be able to kind of sit back and see it all unfold” rather than have to play through the initial upheaval.
“Ultimately I had to make a decision for myself: Do I want to be here? Do I believe in what he’s saying?” Wolfe said of Meggs.
And what was he saying?
“That it was basically going to suck for three years.”
The talent recruited by Knutson’s previous staff kept UW from completely sinking in Meggs’ first year. The 2010 Huskies went 28-28, 11-16 in the Pac-10.
Wolfe started 11 games, 10 in right field, as a freshman. In the 11th start he was moving to a fly ball. His sprinting center fielder never heard Wolfe’s call that he had the play. They crashed into each other so hard Wolfe still isn’t sure if he lost consciousness. He tore the meniscus in his knee and missed the final half of the 2010 season. He remained affected into his sophomore year.
Meggs had already warned Wolfe that season would be the worst one, because of a lack of recruits while the coach was still establishing his program. Those Huskies of three years ago went 17-37. Their 6-21 mark inside the Pac-12 equaled Washington’s fewest league wins in 27 years.
"This is what we’ve spent all year working toward: To be the best, to win the Pac-12 and host the regionals. So we have to take this next step, against the No. 2 – and in some polls No. 1 – team in the nation."
Then in 2012, 30-25, UW’s first winning baseball season in four years. The program was rebuilding as Meggs promised it would.
“I could see the light,” Wolfe said, which is remarkable given he redshirted all of that season while rehabilitating the knee.
The program was primed to take off at the start of 2013. But those Huskies had so many injuries they should have played their games inside the UW Medical Center. Sixteen different players were in Meggs’ starting nine last season. A college staff usually has three main starting pitchers, plus a fourth fill-in for weekday games or spot duty. Washington’s had 10 pitchers start at least one game in 2013.
Yet after beginning 9-25, Washington won 15 of its final 22 games to finish tied for sixth in the league. Modest improvement, yes, but better than seventh, 10th and ninth in Meggs’ first three years at UW.
Wolfe, though, was a part-timer. For half of last season he was UW’s lone left-handed bat on the bench, a heavily recruited high-school star reduced to a pinch-hitter.
“Last year was really hard for me, to be honest, because I felt like I should have been playing every day. And who doesn’t at this level?” Wolfe said.
“But I respect Coach Meggs. He’s loud. He’s demanding. But he’s taught me the most about life through baseball, how if you want something you go get it.
“We talk all the time on this team about roles,” Wolfe said. “Well, last year we only had one left-handed bat on the bench, and I was one of three on the whole team. I had two home runs, 13 RBI and a .233 average. And I was very proud of that, because nearly all of those were pinch hits, at the end of games against closers. I was really proud of that. I felt I took ownership of that role. I took ownership of how I responded.
“I wanted to be the best pinch-hitter in the country. That’s how I responded. It’s a great feeling to take ownership of something and respond.”
His response continued through last summer, when he ripped it for the Terre Haute Rex of the Prospect League. He got that gig through the help of UW’s staff and Meggs, who had coached in the same town at Indiana State before coming to Washington.
“I got really lucky,” Wolfe said. “I’d just had knee surgery. Nobody wanted me.”
Wolfe led Terre Haute with five home runs. He hit .294 with 22 RBI. That renewed his confidence, and by the time he got back to UW last fall he was starting and in the center of Meggs’ batting order.
Wolfe was all-in. The rest of the team got there on Feb. 21.
That night immediately after a humbling, 8-2 loss to eventual Big Ten-champion Indiana in Surprise, Ariz., Meggs pointed across the field to the 2013 College World Series team and said of the Hoosiers, “You want to be like them? This is how you need to be to be like them: If you are going to show up tomorrow, come ready to win the College World Series.”
From that day, Meggs said he’s seen a renewed dedication to selflessness. A week to the day of that loss to IU, the Huskies began that streak of 17 wins in 18 games to arrive on the national scene. They’ve yet to lose a Pac-12 series this season.
AT HOME, LIVING “A DREAM”
Wolfe had many programs wanting him out of Snohomish High. So why UW?
His grandfather having gone here was just the start.
“This is the place I want to win. I didn’t care about the field, or whatever. This has always been home for me,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many football games I’ve been to in Husky Stadium with my grandparents. It would have felt wrong to go anywhere else.
“This is the place to be at – and more important, to win at. It just didn’t happen for a while.”
He chuckled at that.
Seattle is indeed home. His older sister Amanda just got engaged and is a receptionist in a dental office in suburban Mill Creek. His older brother Mitch went to Central Washington and is a trainer at Bellevue Pro Club on Seattle’s Eastside. Younger sister Lauren is attending Western Washington University in Bellingham.
His father Don is a business consultant in Renton for The Mosaic Company, a workforce consulting firm specializing in the oil and gas industry. His mother Julie is a para-educator working with students with Asperger syndrome and other conditions that affect learning development in the Snohomish School District.
Wolfe has graduated with a degree in communications. He says he could see himself teaching and coaching, doing what his dad does in consulting, or even marketing.
But for the first time, he sees getting drafted by a Major League team June 5-7 as a strong possibility.
“It’s definitely real,” he said. “It’s a dream.”
There is a stigma attached to college seniors, because the best collegiate baseball players get drafted in their junior years. But Wolfe is an attractive draft prospect for more reasons than just the production this spring that has him atop one of nation’s most highly regarded college baseball leagues.
Because he doesn’t have the leverage of being able to say no to a pro signing-bonus offer and return to college for a final season, Wolfe is likely to accept less money than most collegiate draft choices. That could inspire a team to draft the leading hitter on the No. 5 team in the country for, say, a $50,000 bonus instead of a $200,000 one.
Whatever. The wise, old, hardened college senior batting nearly .400 right now with a broken thumb would sign for 50 cents.
“All I want to do is play,” the do-it-all Wolfe of Montlake said. “It’s all I want to do, play baseball.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
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