Feb. 13, 2007
By James Schleicher
The sights and sounds of spring have started to arrive: The sun has actually started to shine, the North Face fleeces have started to disappear and the ping of aluminum bats rings out from Husky Ballpark.
Two Husky fans show their support for the "DiamondDawgs" through the rain during a game at Husky Baseball Stadium early last season.
While some winters mean that the baseball team spends the majority of its time practicing inside, this year has brought more hospitable weather, allowing the Huskies to spend almost all their time outside preparing for the upcoming season.
"Hans Straub, our conditioning guy, worked us out and got us in shape," said junior Matt Stevens. "We're all probably in the best shape of our lives and ready to go."
As the beginning of the season approaches, the focus on the team winning instead of individual achievement has been the center of attention for the Huskies.
"We're pretty dynamic this year," said junior Matt Hague. "We have a speed, and then we have some power guys. Everyone's working really hard to get better too; there's no time for lackadaisical effort."
After falling just shy of making the playoffs last year, the goal for this year is to make the playoffs and then win a Super Regional, in order to earn a trip to Omaha, Neb. for the College World Series.
"When you don't get that chance, [to play in the playoffs] it definitely feels like a letdown," Stevens said. "We felt with our talent we should have been there. So that's what we're working for this year."
In order for that goal to become reality, the team will have to do well in their pre-conference games. The team finished last season with a 36-25 record and placed fifth in the Pac-10.
This year's team only has one senior -- All-Pac-10 first baseman Curt Rindal -- but that doesn't mean there's a shortage of talent. The roster features many veterans (20 returning varsity players) as well as some up-and-coming younger players and transfers who have yet to show off their talents in purple and gold.
Big hitters Hague and Stevens will have slightly different roles on defense since they switched positions in the offseason. This year, Hague and Stevens flip-flop on defense, with Hague at third base and Stevens in right field. Both players said the switch has not been too hard.
"It's different from the outfield," Hague said. "Playing third base you have to be on the tip of your toes every play. I like it. I'm working hard at it."
Both Hague and Stevens will be forces to reckon with at the plate. Hague, a third- team All-American last year, led the team in batting average (.381) last year and has the highest career batting average (.394) in Washington history. Known as a slugger, Stevens' 17 home runs last year ranked second in the Pac-10. He tied for second on the team for RBIs (48).
The gap in the top of the pitching rotation left by last year's Golden Spikes Award winner Tim Lincecum, who has departed for the professional ranks, will be filled by junior Nick Hagadone. Hagadone only started five games last year, but spent the majority of his time as a closer where he appeared in 23 games and pitched four saves.
"He's crazy," said coach Ken Knutson. "He's just totally possessed at working out and trying to get better. If you tell him to do 10 of something he will do 15."
Knutson is definitely happy to have Hagadone on the mound. All that offseason work has shown up in practice as Hagadone has been throwing pitches in the low 90 mph-range and as high as 93 mph.
"It's really good to have a good left hander that's throwing in the low to mid-90s and really likes to work," Knutson said. "It's a good combination."
The starting pitching staff will also likely include sophomore Tyler Cheney and junior Brandon McKerney. Knutson, in his 15th year as coach, believes in having a solid bullpen and plans to use junior Elliot Cribby in the closer's role.
As for the person taking balls behind the plate, Knutson said the catcher will likely be junior Joey Dunn, who has started 39 games in his career at the UW.
Throughout the outfield and infield there are plenty of veterans holding positions: Rindal at first, sophomore Danny Cox at shortstop, Hague at third and Stevens in right. Knutson has a plethora of players with experience and new players to fill out the remaining position.
"The nucleus is there," Knutson said. "We have starters at all the infield positions returning ... so it will be about developing roles, match ups and there could be some platooning going on. Then we will work the new players in."
Stevens knows that his athletic teammates will be useful around the horn.
"On defense we have some guys that will be able to play a lot of different positions and show their athleticism," Stevens said. "Everybody on the team has got to be ready to play any position or any role that they need to."
Before the team has a chance to play in the playoffs and hopefully the College World Series, it will have to prove that it belongs there throughout its 56-game schedule. The team starts the season on the road at Cal Poly on Friday.
"We've been training since September, just waiting for the first game, the first pitch and we'll be ready when it happens," Stevens said.
The next weekend the Huskies will travel to North Carolina for a tournament against East Coast teams before returning home for a three-week homestand. The home opener will be played against Portland on Feb. 27 at 3 p.m.