Jan. 12, 2000
SEATTLE - The turn of the century has been a significant happening in all aspects of life. For the Husky baseball team, it means perhaps a bit more.
For one, it means the 100th season of Washington baseball since the school fielded its first team in 1901. As chance would have it, it also will signify a renewal in Husky baseball as a long list of new, young players will play significant roles on the field in 2000.
Back in 1996, Coach Ken Knutson started six or seven freshmen almost every day on the way to winning a Pacific-10 Conference Northern Division title. That '96 team evolved into a team that won overall Pac-10 championships in 1997 and 1998. While it's unlikely that that many first-year players will see action on a day-to-day basis in 2000, there's no doubt that this season's club will be made up mostly players with little collegiate experience.
"This is the biggest personnel change we've had since 1996," says Knutson. "We'll have a lot of new faces - freshmen, a couple of transfers and some young players that didn't play a lot last year.
"We're more experienced than we were in '96," he continues, "but we're as talented. We need the experience and the confidence that the season will bring. We could be really good in May."
Last year, the Husky team suffered more significant injuries to more significant players than in Knutson's six previous seasons combined. While those injuries may very well have kept the Huskies out of the postseason, they also opened the door for a number of young players to get at least some experience.
While the loss of All-Pac-10 first-teamers like pitcher Jeff Heaverlo, catcher Dominic Woody and right fielder Bryan Williamson, as well as regulars like third baseman Kevin Ticen, designated hitter Pete Orgill and center fielder Nick Stefonick, would seem difficult to overcome, the Huskies are actually deeper than last year.
"I think we have more flexibility and depth," Knutson says. "We're at least two deep with legitimate players at every position."
Here's a position-by-position look at the 2000 Washington baseball team:
Despite losing Heaverlo, the most successful pitcher in Washington history, the Husky staff should be the team's strength. A list of talented veterans is joined by a strong group of newcomers and Knutson hopes that when everyone settles in, the pitching staff will be as deep, strong and varied as it has ever been during his tenure.
Junior righty Jeff Carlsen will step into the No. 1 starter role after having compiled a 16-4 record over the last two seasons.
"Jeff's the staff leader. He pitched very well in Cape Cod last summer and was a U.S. National Team invitee," Knutson says. "The challenge for him will be moving into the No. 1 spot, where he'll have to go up against everyone else's ace. He's got four solid pitches and he really competes. He finds ways to win."
After struggling through his sophomore season as the closer last year, right-hander Matt Massingale had an outstanding summer in the Cape Cod League. With his dramatic improvement, he has made himself into a Husky starter as well as a top pro prospect.
"Matt's stuff is so good that I wanted to make him a starter, like he was in high school," Knutson says. "His fastball is in the low 90s and he has a really good slider."
Junior southpaw Mike Bomar is the Huskies' No. 3 going into the spring. "He had a good summer," Knutson says. "He needs to show some consistency. At times, he's very good, and I think that being a regular starter will suit him."
Sophomore lefty Taylor Grant may be the biggest key to the Huskies' pitching success. Knutson intends to use him often and in different roles. "He's a security blanket," Knutson explains. "When we need some good innings, he's the guy. I want to use him a lot until the younger guys settle in and I could move him into the rotation."
If his health allows, junior lefty Daniel Jahn should be a top pitcher out of the bullpen and could also see time as the designated hitter. "Daniel's one of our leaders," Knutson says. "He's one of our hardest workers, and we have to get him on the field. He's had back problems, but if he's healthy, he could see a lot of work."
Jahn's story is similar to that of junior southpaw Matt Gardner, who had shoulder surgery in the off-season. "Matt's rehab has gone well. He was pitching very well before he got hurt, so hopefully he can get back to that form."
Three sophomores - lefty Zack Daniels and right-handers Shawn Kohn and Randy Vanderplow - are all possible future starters, who will compete for mid-week starts and bullpen appearances based on production and strike-throwing ability. The same goes for redshirt-freshman Brian Barton, who will also get some swings as the DH.
Of the incoming group of pitchers, two in particular - lefty Cam McCoy and righty Tyler Shepple - will vie for innings this year. "Shepple wants to close, and he's got the right stuff and the makeup for that," Knutson says. "I can see using Cam a lot this year, though his time might be dictated by how well Gardner does."
Four other freshman will hope to develop this year. Sean White, Knutson says, is a young pitcher that may see some innings while Knutson hopes that his high school teammate Scott Robertson will develop into a curveball-throwing, finesse-type starter. Tall lefty Ryan Peck will sit out the season after undergoing shoulder surgery while righty Chris Pugmire will try to develop using a new arm angle that he picked up in the fall.
Going into the spring, the Husky closer should be redshirt sophomore Michael Done, who will also start at third base. "Done throws hard and throws a lot of strikes," Knutson says. "He's got that good poise you look for in a closer."
None of the five catchers on the Washington roster has ever worn a Husky uniform, but Knutson hopes that such inexperience won't be a problem.
Entering the spring, freshman Jefferson Thiel is the obvious front-runner. "Thiel's definitely the starter right now," Knutson says. "He has exceptional defensive abilities and he's a very polished catcher for a freshman."
The rest of the catching corps consists of three more freshmen and a sophomore JC transfer. Jeremiah Porter, who was drafted as a catcher, is still new to the position after playing primarily outfield in high school. Due to sickness, he didn't fully participate in fall practice, but Knutson is fond of his athletic ability and it's certain he'll get at least some time behind the plate in his freshman season.
Freshman Chad Yarbrough and sophomore Tim Rice will compete for time. Yarbrough was also injured in the fall and Rice only transferred to the UW for the spring quarter, meaning that he didn't participate in the Huskies' fall practice season. Highly-regarded freshman Mike Syvrud will have to redshirt his first season due to medical problems.
Returning to his spot at first base is Ed Erickson, the Huskies' lone senior. Erickson missed the latter third of last season after breaking bones in his wrist and hand. Those injuries forced him to sit out the entire fall, but as Washington's all-time home runs leader, he's a shoo-in to make the lineup as either the first baseman or as the designated hitter.
"If Ed's healthy, everything's good," says Knutson. "He had delicate surgery and the rehab was extensive, but if he's healthy, you can expect him in the lineup every day."
Both junior transfer Duggan Moran and freshman Jay Garthwaite played first base in the fall, but both were limited by earlier injuries. Moran, one of the nation's top JC hitters as a freshman, is also noted for his defense while Garthwaite was a 12th-round draft pick last summer based largely on his power.
With junior Marc Rittenhouse moving from second base to center field, two sophomores will compete for the starting spot there.
Returner Brent Robertson started 22 games at second base as a freshman last year while transfer Josh Fulton was a part-time starter as a freshman at Brigham Young in 1999.
"Both Brent and Josh played pretty well in the fall," Knutson says. "When it comes to who gets to play, production will be the key thing. We're going to let them fight it out for the job. You could say the same thing about shortstop."
Sophomore Richard Hall and freshman Tila Reynolds are the two competitors at shortstop. "We have two good Division I shortstops from a defensive standpoint," Knutson says. "Hall's a big guy that can run. He has good range, but he needs to make a jump at the plate. He does a lot of little things well, but he needs to do the big thing - hit.
"Tila is coming off of major surgery his senior season of high school," Knutson continues, describing the "Tommy John" elbow surgery that Reynolds had last spring. "He has very good defensive abilities, but he hasn't played all out in almost a year."
The clearest infield position is third base, where Done (also the Huskies' projected closer) has had to wait a season. Done was required to sit out last season due to transfer rules after moving from a junior college in Kansas. He'll step right in to the starting spot at third and may also be relied on as the Huskies' No. 3 hitter and relief ace.
"Done has a chance to be a major impact player on our team and in our league," Knutson says. "He's a complete player. He should be the best defensive player we've had at third in quite a while. He's a switch hitter with great ability from either side. He should both score and drive in a lot of runs."
Done's backup, who can actually play all the infield spots, is freshman Bryan Johnson. With Done ahead of him, his playing time might be limited this year, but Knutson sees great things in the future. "We think he'll be a very good switch hitter. Really, he's a lot like Done."
A decent number of experienced players return to the Washington outfield this year, but none was truly a regular starter there last year.
Junior Marc Rittenhouse spent the last two seasons as the Huskies' regular second baseman and leadoff hitter, but has moved to the starting spot in center field this year. Last season, he was batting .360 through 35 games before a broken foot ended his season.
"Ritt should be a top hitter in the Pac-10," Knutson says. "People may be surprised at how good a player he is. The main reason we moved him to center is that he can really play anywhere and we have an abundance of infielders."
Sophomore Todd Linden showed flashes of his prodigious power in limited action (16 starts, 82 at bats) as a freshman last year. A switch hitter, he should be an everyday player in either left or right field.
"Todd should hit in the middle of the lineup," Knutson says. "He's a big, fast guy and he has really improved his hitting from the right side."
Sophomore lefty Matt Hollod made 23 starts last season. "Matt's a very steady player. He can play all three outfield spots and hit very well as a freshman [.290] last season. I think he's a natural hitter and can steal some bases."
Sophomore Ben Miller, who had only 11 at bats as a freshman, had a great fall and will look to get into the lineup in 2000. "Ben was probably the team-proclaimed MVP of the fall," Knutson says. "He reminds us a lot of [former All-Pac-10 North outfielder] Nick Stefonick."
Three freshmen also figure into the outfield picture - Justin Drake, Tyler Davidson and Steve DeClerck. Knutson has positive things to say about all three, though they'll all have a tough time finding playing time with so many experienced players in the outfield.
"Drake's the fastest guy we've ever had since I've been here," says Knutson, who's been around the UW program since 1980. "If Rittenhouse went down, he'd be our center fielder. In a year, he could be one of our best players."
"Davidson's definitely a future contributor," Knutson says. "He's my favorite kind of player - big and fast. DeClerck is a very good hitter whose barrel seems to find the ball. We're going to need to find a spot for him eventually."
The wild card of the outfield is Marques Tuiasosopo. Well-known as the starting quarterback on the UW football team, he will turn out for baseball for the first time this spring. Last fall on the gridiron, Tuiasosopo earned national acclaim, leading the Pac-10 in total offense and posting one of the most memorable single-game performances in history when he ran for 207 yards and passed for 302 against Stanford.
"Marques is a very exciting addition to our team," Knutson explains. "As a high school player, he was one of the best players in the country. He's a natural leader - very poised. He hasn't swung the bat in a few years, but we think he's a bit of natural. He could easily hit in the middle of the lineup for us."
Only when the games begin will Knutson really know what he has. Simply put, whoever plays the best will earn the starting spots as the team makes its way through the non-conference schedule in preparation for Pac-10 play. While the Huskies fell perhaps only one conference win short of making the postseason last year, Knutson hopes to make a clear statement this year and not allow for any close calls.
It's easy to blame last year's rash of injuries for missing the playoffs in 1999, but Knutson knows that there were other factors.
"We didn't play well at home in conference," he says. "We also didn't play as well as we needed to against our Northwest rivals. We need to get back to doing those things again this year."
So as the new century brings renewal for people all over the world, Washington fans are hoping that the new-era Huskies can return to the top of the Pac.