May 17, 2012
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Two years ago, Aaron West got drilled.
The Huskies pitcher had surgery to repair frayed cartilage in a right elbow that had been paining him for months. Doctors drilled holes into his indispensible pitching joint in April 2010, to promote regeneration of new, healthy cartilage. He didn't face a hitter until January 2011. The injury and recovery ruined his sophomore season at UW (which he then redshirted) after just four appearances, plus his chance at getting drafted by a major league team.
They also ruined his confidence.
"It was a loooong process," West says now. "Yeah, there were thoughts going through my head of, `Am I going to be able to pitch again?'"
He did last year, but not as well as he would have liked. But after going 1-8 with an ERA north of 5.00 for Washington as a redshirt sophomore and not getting drafted, West found an alternative path. Very alternative.
He pitched for the Far West League, a summer collegiate league, for the Humboldt Crabs -- in the far out Northern California town renowned for its, um ... alternative lifestyle.
Humboldt is far more like the counterculture society of the 1960s a few hours south in San Francisco and Berkeley, than it is his native Snohomish, Wash.
"That was my first time there," West said of Humboldt, smiling and shaking his head. "Very interesting.
"It's a little bit Hippie, kind of old style. But the community loved the team. There were a 1,000 people at each of our games. It was really nice."
This spring, so is West.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound right-hander is the undisputed ace of Washington's staff, one which is among the national leaders in hits and in walks allowed. West a primary reason why the Huskies (27-21, 11-13, Pac-12) are within range of .500 inside one of the nation's toughest conferences, and thus within range of their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2006.
He's 7-5 with a 2.44 ERA, fifth-best among Pac-12 starters with at least a dozen starts. That is after he allowed just two runs -- because of his 12th walk in 82 innings this season to that point, then a hit batter in the third inning -- last Friday night in a 2-0 loss to No. 11 UCLA at Safeco Field.
He starts the third game of the Huskies' key, weekend series Sunday afternoon at Arizona State (14-10 in the conference), having picked up a win in a rare mid-week start Wednesday vs. Portland. UW likely needs to win four and perhaps five of their final six conference games against ASU and home versus Washington State over the next two weekends to finish at or above .500 in the Pac-12 and make that NCAA tournament.
West is scheduled to start two of those six remaining league games.
After that? According to his coach, West is about to realize a dream the pitcher feared had been taken from him two years ago.
"I don't expect him to be back, and he'll be drafted in the first 10 rounds. That would be my guess," Huskies coach Lindsay Meggs says of Major League Baseball's amateur draft next month.
"He's just become such a strike thrower, really with three pitches."
That would be his low-90s fastball that is more potently precise than it is overpowering, a strategic changeup and a slider that he perfected while a Crab among those retros in Humboldt last summer.
Huskies assistant coach Dave Dangler began showing West a different grip and wrist action on the slider. By end of the summer he was getting the tricky sideways action at near-fastball velocity, fooling hitters throughout that Far West League.
West, who threw a two-hitter to win the Washington Class 4A title as a senior at Snohomish High School, says he now throws 25-30 sliders a game, along with 10 or so changeups.
"Especially having the year I did last year, it was kind of rough," West says. "Once I got my confidence back it was, `Hey, I can pitch again. I can do this.' Everything just kind of cruised from there."
Asked about possibly being mere weeks from getting drafted, West bashfully looked around the empty entryway of UW's shiny, new Wayne Gittinger Baseball Building.
"I mean, I hope I have myself in a good spot," he said, adding he is hearing "a little bit" about getting selected. "But if things don't go my way I'll have one more year and I'll be back and play and have another year of Husky baseball - and hopefully start my graduate program."
See, West has command of far more than the strike zone.
He is just eight elective credits shorts of his degree in history, having completed all his required courses. His Plan B if the pros don't come calling is to return to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) this summer, graduate in the fall, and then apply at UW for graduate school for international relations. Then he would pitch a redshirt senior season in Meggs' rising program.
West would love to become an FBI or CIA agent.
"That looks really fun," he says.
For now West and Huskies will settle for benefitting from his growing reputation as a control freak. Hitters come to the plate hacking at West early in the count, knowing he's unlikely to walk them. That's meant a lot of quick outs and low pitch counts deep into games for the right-hander, with a domino effect of Meggs being able to manage his bullpen to his advantage in matchups often while with a lead late in games.
Two weeks ago West shut out USC to begin Washington's series sweep in Los Angeles. That had the Huskies above .500 in the Pac-12 and named as an under-the-radar team capable of noise in the postseason.
Against UCLA last Friday night, 70 of West's 110 pitches were strikes. He threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of the 28 Bruins he faced in eight innings. Dueling out-for-out with UCLA ace Adam Plutko, who was drafted in the sixth round out of high school, West showed off his full portfolio for the half-dozen scouts seated behind home plate at Safeco Field.
He allowed the same number of hits, five, and walked two fewer batters while lasting an inning longer than Plutko. UCLA's only two runs off West in the third came on only one hit, a two-out single. West ended the seventh by picking a Bruin off with a surprisingly quick move to first base for a right-hander.
"I would say Aaron has exceeded my expectations, and that's no disrespect to him," Meggs said. "He's going out there on Friday and faced everybody's No. 1, and at times has not gotten the offense some of our other guys have gotten on Saturdays and Sundays. He's never given in. He's never done anything but compete at the highest level.
"You always assume at some point you are going to see the air go out of the balloon for a guy on one start. But he's just been an absolute gamer every time out. That's a credit, I think, to his experience; he's been around the block a few times.
"He's been working for four years to put himself in this position."
Working from Snohomish to UW to an operating table to Humboldt -- and back -- in fact.