Jan. 22, 2001
As the Washington baseball team begins its second 100 years of baseball, there's reason for optimism at Husky Ballpark. The Huskies began practicing two weeks ago and open the season Feb. 22 at a tournament in Tucson, Ariz.
What was an unusually young team in 2000 returns nearly in tact for the 2001 season. Ninth-year head coach Ken Knutson has reason to believe that things are headed in the right direction.
"The big difference between this year and last is that we have experienced players. They're still very young, but everybody played last year," Knutson says. "We pretty much have incumbents at every spot. Center field will be left up for competition.
"We have the ability to go out and try to win from the get-go. Last year, the focus was to try to develop a really young team and get them competitive. We knew that it was going to be difficult. I thought that we accomplished that last year, even with our late tailspin. If we could have stayed healthy on the mound, things may have been a little different."
The Huskies' eight field positions are pretty well set as the team enters the spring. Starters return at most positions, and all but center field has been decided before the start of the year. Sophomores Jefferson Thiel (catcher), Tila Reynolds (shortstop) and Tyler Davidson (right field) all return to the positions that saw them earn Freshman All-America honors last year. Additionally, Jay Garthwaite, who earned Freshman All-America acclaim as a DH, moves to left. Senior second baseman Marc Rittenhouse begins his fourth year as a starter there, and junior Michael Done returns to his spot at third base.
The only new addition to the infield is sophomore Bryan Johnson, who will start at first base. Johnson may have been the most impressive Husky player last fall.
Four or more players will compete for the starting center field spot. Sophomore Justin Drake spent time last season as a starter there, as did junior Ben Miller. Also in the field are JC transfers Brandon Jacobson, a sophomore, and junior Andre Marshall.
"The strength of this team is that we should be very good defensively. If you look at our infield, we have Bryan Johnson, a high school shortstop at first base. Rittenhouse is a four-year starter at second base. Tila Reynolds caught the ball at shortstop as well as any freshman we've ever had. And Michael Done plays spectacular third base. Our infield defense should be the best we've had since I've been here.
"Thiel, the catcher, was a freshman All-American. That gives us a very strong starting unit around the infield. Davidson returns in right field, center field is a question and Jay Garthwaite's in left. Everyone has defensive ability. Tyler's an excellent outfielder. Jay played very well in Cuba and in the fall. We're going to get good defensive play in center. And, there's Jeremiah Porter, an excellent defensive player, who's also in the mix. It's just a matter of how his back responds from the surgery.
"I think the biggest change you'll see is that last year, [hitting coach] Joe Ross was teaching these guys how to swing, and now we're teaching them how to hit. There's a big difference. Mechanically, we're done. Now they have to learn how to hit - how to deal with the Pac-10 pitching that we're going to see and to put good swings on balls and have a consistent approach.
"We feel comfortable that we're going to run out nine strong hitters every day. It won't be like last year when sometimes we felt like we were only getting production out of one or two spots. I think we'll be very dangerous offensively."
As for the designated hitter spot, Knutson has no made no final decision. Several players will see time there, and regular starters will occasionally DH to allow younger players a day in the field. Senior switch-hitter Duggan Moran, freshman lefty Steve Ramsey and freshman right-handed hitter Mike Wagner will all get a regular chance at designated hitter.
"I think Moran really swung well, and both Ramsey and Wagner have shown ability in the fall. They're all going to see time. I could see a platoon at DH and I could also see Garthwaite there with someone else playing outfield. I'd like to give the other guys time off here and there. I can do that by DH-ing them from time to time. We're going have a strong hitter in the DH spot.
"I think the kids are aware of the competition. And the position players are aware of who's going to play. It's pretty clear-cut. Then there are a few backup situations that have to be resolved. The biggest competition may be the backup catcher. Tim Rice did it last year, and he's been swinging the bat really well. I think Chad Yarbrough may have made the biggest jump of anybody on the team. He's catching and throwing well. But we can't catch Thiel every game. He's a critical player because he's a very good player and he has a lot of experience back there even though he's a sophomore."
Compared to the batting order, very little has been decided when it comes to the makeup of the Husky pitching rotation. Senior Jeff Carlsen, healthy after off-season shoulder surgery, will most certainly return to the starting rotation. And sophomore Sean White was probably the Huskies' top pitcher in the fall. He'll likely start as well. Other than that, Knutson has left things open, hoping the large, mostly-experienced staff will sort itself out through competition.
"We have a bunch of people returning that pitched last year - some for the first time, some are upperclassmen. We have three seniors back on the mound. It makes for some really interesting competition for innings. And also, I think it will make us really good on the mound. We have lot of pitchers, but we'll have to get it down to a workable number. This will create a lot of competition. The kids will have to compete and innings will be earned by production.
"On the mound, we have some unknowns. We had some really good performances in the fall. We have some promising young players. I think the big bonus will be what happens with Carlsen and Mike Bomar. Certainly, Carlsen has a great history of pitching here. They both seem healthy and everything looks ready to go. Matt Gardner has also pitched well when he's been healthy.
"In the fall, I thought Sean White was really dominant and I thought Tyler Shepple and Cam McCoyboth had really good falls. All the veteran guys - Randy Vanderplow, Shawn Kohn, Zack Daniels, Taylor Grant, Brian Barton - pitched well. I'm not just saying that because I'm optimistic. Guys pitched well. We had very few poor outings. I think there's a nice mix of finesse and power guys. And guys have been around for a while. Now it's just a matter of performing. I truly believe that the competition will bring out the best in our staff."
In year's past, Knutson has generally gone with a pro-style closer, deciding before the season began on a player that would likely be brought in to pitch in any save situation.
"Right now, we don't have a closer, but there's a good chance that either Barton or Scott Robertson will end up in that role. Right now, the plan is to run out our best pitchers to start the game and then bring in the next best pitchers when the starter gets tired or in trouble. Or we'll just throw complete games. In the past, I've tried to establish roles and work guys into roles. But I'm going to leave it up to competition. If guys want to pitch, they're going to have to do well. If they go out there and have success, they're going to pitch again.
"I think it will turn into a situation where roles will emerge. I'd like to have a balance in the bullpen, and I'd like to have a closer. But if I don't, then we'll do it by committee. But we are looking for people to step up."
While this year's UW team isn't as experienced as some, it's worth noting that 22 lettermen return. In 1996, the Huskies started six or seven freshmen on a regular basis. That group went on to win Pac-10 titles in 1997 and 1998.
"This team reminds me a lot of the 1997 team since we had so many freshmen playing last year. Last season after 11 games, we were hitting something like .220 and we were striking out 15 times a game and our bullpen was giving up leads and we had a poor record. It affected everything. You don't have fun. You don't catch the ball. You find ways to lose leads. You don't win. We did all those things.
"But we got through that. We got better. We started to play. As sophomores, those guys know what it takes to be a good ball club and how to play right. Now it's just a matter of competing and staying healthy. Now they have confidence knowing that if they do those things, they'll have success. That's the biggest thing - confidence.
"This team has a lot of ability, and with confidence, we'll be very good. We have to remember how we played in the middle of last season. We got it going, and we lost some games that we should have won. But we were in the Pac-10 starting five or six freshmen.
"I think we could say the same thing every year. The goal of our program is to compete for the national championship. To do that, you have to be competitive in the Pac-10. If you look at it, we've had conference runners-up and third-place teams playing in Omaha all the time. We've had Pac-10 teams playing for the national championship against each other. We've had Pac-10 teams in Omaha competing for the national championship almost every year. So, to win the conference title, you have to be good enough to win the national championship.
"We have the talent in the program to play in this league, but it's a greatleague. To get in a regional, you have to play well in the conference and win out of conference. And if you can survive the Pac-10 and get into a regional, then you can make a run at the national championship. Our goal is that simple.
"We want to be one of the 64 teams in the regionals. We haven't been there for a two years and it hasn't been a good feeling.We have the ability to get it done."