Jan. 31, 2006
If it seems like the 2006 Husky baseball season might be the start of a new era, there are a few good reasons.
In 2005, the Huskies featured a veteran batting order, an infield with unprecedented experience and a young pitching staff. That UW team was coming off of three straight NCAA tournament appearances, most in school history, but fell a win or two short of the postseason.
In 2006, 14th-year head coach Ken Knutson will field an entirely new infield and only a few experienced hitters, but has a deep and veteran pitching staff on which he hopes to rely.
Whether that blend will result in the Huskies' return to an NCAA regional -- well, that's why they play the games. However, Knutson, who has led the UW to six of its eight all-time postseason appearances, is confident that this new-look Diamond Dawg squad has what it needs to succeed.
"We had a big turnover from last year and we have basically lost our infield," Knutson explains. "Many of the core players over the last several years have left. The nice thing is that we have a lot of last year's freshmen or others that have been in the program that haven't played that much who are ready. I think we're ready to have a real nice transition from that previous group to this one."
Knutson also agrees that, particularly in the early stages of the season, solid pitching will be vital to the Dawgs' success.
"Without a doubt, the key to our team and how far we go, will be riding on the back of our pitching staff," he says. "In all my years here, I think we've got the deepest staff we've ever had and has a chance to be the most talented. All the pieces are there. It's got a chance to be special. Now, they have to go out and perform."
Here's a breakdown of the 2006 Husky baseball team, position by position:
The UW welcomes the return of all three of its primary starters from last season. In fact, of the 55 games last season, 45 featured starting pitchers who return in 2006. The question marks arise in the bullpen, where Knutson expects a talented group of freshman to complement a small but solid group of veterans.
At the top of the list is preseason All-American Tim Lincecum, a two-time All-Pac-10 first-teamer and the Huskies' No. 1 starter in each of his two previous seasons at the UW.
"Lincecum is clearly the staff leader in terms of his experience the last two years, with the innings pitched, the results, the accolades, what he did in the Cape Cod League - all of that," Knutson says. " I anticipate that he will be our No. 1 starter. But he's so versatile. Last summer, he closed. When he was a freshman, we had him closing on Friday and starting on Sundays. That could develop. I don't know at this point, but I think Tim is going to throw a lot of innings and be the key guy. Everybody that's looking at Washington is going to be talking about Lincecum."
Knutson goes on to explain that, remarkably enough, Lincecum seems to have added a few more miles per hour over the summer, jumping into the high 90s. He touched 99 in the fall and threw at least one 100-mph pitch last summer in the Cape Cod League.
Next is fellow junior Kyle Parker, who has also spent nearly his entire Husky career in the starting rotation. He is likely to return to that role in 2006.
"Kyle is a really big key to our success this year. I think he's poised to have a big year," Knutson says. " The thing about Parker is he's always pitched well in big games. The moment never gets to him. He's got a lot of poise and he's highly competitive."
Senior Matt Kasser is the team's most veteran pitcher. While he's seen time out of the bullpen throughout his Husky tenure, he's been a regular starter the last two springs.
"Matt Kasser has been in the mix here for three years. We expect quality innings from him," Knutson says. "He's one of the leaders on the pitching staff and on the team. I think a lot of players look up to him as a senior because of the way he works and goes about his business."
While the roles will work themselves out during the spring, there are other starting candidates, including at least one returner (sophomore Brandon McKerney), one JC transfer (junior Elliott Cribby) and any number of freshman contenders.
"McKerney pitched a lot of innings for us last year in a lot of different situations and roles," Knutson says. "I feel comfortable that he could be a starter or a closer or a middle guy. He's my security blanket, especially while we're getting all the young kids ready to pitch."
Knutson compares Cribby to a couple of former Husky starters who were both JC transfers - Jamie Day and Jeff Lynch. "Elliott was exceptional this fall. He was really consistent, he never got hit and he's a strikethrower," Knutson says. "He's another guy that I could use as a starter or a reliever. People that have been around our program know what guys like Lynch and Day did for our program and Elliott could be another one of those guys."
One key to the bullpen could be the return of fireballing closer candidate Richie Lentz, who is recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery he underwent last season. The speed and success of his return could dictate how things shake out in the bullpen.
" You're talking about one of the power arms in the country when he came in as a freshman," Knutson says of Lentz. "We could see him as our closer, just a power fastball in the high 90s coming out of the bullpen. My history with a lot of guys that come back from those type of injuries is that they come back even better than before, with more arm strength. If that happens, Richie could really be something."
Another key is sophomore Matt Hague, who spent the first part of last season as a reliever before featuring in the batting order the second half of the year. He finished with a .419 average and a team-high eight homers, numbers that are sure to keep him in the lineup. However, with more maturity could come more opportunities to contribute as a two-way player.
"Matt was so hot at the plate that we allowed him just to hit. I think as a freshman, it's tough to juggle both," Knutson says. "This year, until Lentz gets back to full-go and as long as he has success and wants to do it, I could see Hague being a closer. We'll see how it goes, but I'm certainly looking at Matt as one of those guys."
The other returning bullpen vet is sophomore lefty Nick Hagadone, who should certainly see an increased workload this season after appearing only twice last year.
"Nick might have made as big an improvement as anybody on the pitching staff from his freshman year to now," Knutson says. "He earned the right to pitch."
After that comes a long list of freshmen and Knutson is convinced that literally every one of them could contribute in a big way this season.
Lefty Tyler Cheney, the state's player of the year last season at Richland High, may have had the best fall of the bunch and profiles as a starter, at least in the long term. Knutson describes right-hander Jason Erickson as a strike-thrower, but also notes that his velocity is strong enough that he could be a closer of the future.
A pair of freshmen - Adrian Gomez and Nick Haughian - are expected to give the staff depth from the left-handed side that it may have lacked in recent years while righties Bryce Mooney and Geoff Nichols should also compete for innings right out of the gate.
Washington's trio of catchers is comprised of three rather veteran players - senior D.J. Neyens, junior Matt Lane and sophomore Joey Dunn. Last year, Lane was the everyday starter before injuring his knee in midseason. At that point, Dunn took over on a nearly everyday basis. In the meantime, Neyens had a solid summer and a very good fall, meaning that he's made a serious push to get more time behind the plate.
"Lane is a premium offensive player," Knutson explains. "His bat will be in the lineup every day, you would think. He can play first or DH or catch. You could say he's the offensive catcher out of that bunch.
"Neyens had a great fall," Coach Knutson says. "He swung the bat really well and he brings an intangible to the game in terms of leadership and hustle. He's a very vocal guy. Now he has experience in this program.
"Dunn catches very well," he continues. "All the pitchers feel very comfortable throwing to him. He's a really good receiver and he throws well enough to shut down running games. He's sort of a defensive catcher, but he's also had a really good winter with his hitting, getting his mechanics more consistent.
"Which one of those three will do most of the catching, I don't know," Knutson concludes. "It's going to be about who's hot. We don't feel like we can only play one guy. They can compete. The hot bat or the guy that gets the most out of our pitchers will be the one that catches."
Last year, the Huskies led the NCAA with a .978 fielding percentage, due in large part to the fact that the UW infield featured three seniors and a junior playing nearly every game together. All four of those players - first baseman Kyle Larsen, second baseman Mike Rundle, shortstop Brent Lillibridge and third baseman Nick Batkoski - have moved on, meaning that the Dawgs will rely on some new faces to staff those four spots in 2004.
Fourth-year junior Curt Rindal leads the contingent of first basemen that includes catcher Matt Lane and outfielder Matt Hague, either of whom could play first. Also in the mix are freshmen Trevor Petersen and junior college transfer Jeff James.
"We have a lot of guys that can play first base. Last year, Curt worked his way into a position that he'll probably get the first shot out there," Knutson says. He has tremendous power potential. The thing that's happened last year and last summer is that he's really improved as a defender."
"Petersen is going to be a tremendous hitter," Knutson continues. He has the ability to hit the ball the other way and to drive it with power. James made the ball club because he can swing the bat. He's potentially going to help us out as a hitter off the bench."
Moving across the diamond to third base, the odds-on starter going into the season is sophomore Matt Stevens, who saw some action last year before breaking a bone in his hand.
"If we started the season today, Stevens would get the first look at third base," Knutson concedes. "He has tremendous raw power. He can hit it out anywhere. He's worked very hard on the defensive side and he's probably one of the best athletes on the team."
Among the backups at third base, and also among those vying for time at the two middle infield spots, are sophomore Andy Lentz and senior Brian Bauer. Lentz is a left-handed hitter who played second and left field as a freshman while Bauer, who played at the UW in 2003 and 2004, returns after a year away from baseball. He can play all three infield spots outside of first.
"Andy should play. He's a good player," Knutson says of Lentz "If he swings the bat well, we'll find a place for him. He might be that utility player that plays different spots and is in the lineup everyday, especially against right-handed pitching."
As for the middle of the infield, Knutson admits is a bit of tossup as the Dawgs prepare for the start of the season.
Along with Bauer (primarily a shortstop) and Lentz (second base), two sophomores and two freshmen are vying for playing time.
"If I had to pick a starting lineup right now, I'd probably have to pick it out of a hat," Knutson says of his middle infield situation. "It's just going to be about who plays the best. I feel confident that with the depth and the options that we have, a good middle infield will emerge. Right now, though, I just don't know who that's going to be."
The Husky outfield boasts the Huskies' top two returning hitters from last season and easily the team's most veteran offensive player in senior left fielder Zach Clem. The other is Hague, who entered the lineup early in the conference season and proceeded to tear the cover off the ball over the last two months of the season.
Clem, who hit .332 with eight home runs in 2006, returns to the spot in left that he's held down for the last two seasons while Hague, who could also play first and relieve, is the obvious pick in right field.
"Zach had a bunch of injuries last year," Knutson explains. We found out in the fall that he'd broken some ribs the previous year, probably getting hit by a pitch. That hampered him. But he feels really good now and everything's cleared up. In the fall, he was just on fire at the plate. We couldn't get him out. He was the big hitter of the fall.
"He and Hague have a chance to be two of the best right-handed hitters in the league," Knutson continues. "They have power and the ability to hit for a high average. They'll be right there in the middle of the lineup, probably at three and four.
"I think what makes Hague good is that he really hits pitches that pitchers like to throw," Knutson says. "He can handle a breaking ball or any type of fastball and he has a really good eye at the plate."
After those two, there's a big logjam among players vying to start in center, or to get whatever time is left over in left and right.
Knutson also boasts senior left-handed hitter Cory Rickard, who could play any of the three spots, and freshmen Jake Rife, Kyle Conley and Matt Miller. It's likely that the everyday designated hitter could come out of that group, depending on how things shake out in the outfield.
While it's certainly among the Huskies' primary goals to return to the NCAA postseason after a one-year hiatus, Knutson insists that such talk won't be the team's main motivation.
Rather, he hopes to see his team consistently improve over the course of the season and achieve that small edge that the Huskies may have lacked last year, an edge that left them just short of a tournament berth.
Plenty of people could make the argument that if you finish .500 in a conference like the Pac-10, you should get into the NCAA tournament. It's a really competitive league," Knutson says. "I think we should have gotten in, but then again, we should have played better. Last year was a year of a lot of small things not really going in our favor. We just didn't achieve our potential soon enough."
Knutson points to a fast start as important, though the UW will play 13 of its first 16 games away from Seattle. The initial plan is for the pitching to come to the fore while the offense matures and finds an identity.
"I really think this team has the potential to score more runs and to be more athletic," Knutson says. "The thing we don't have is experience among our position players. Certainly, there's going to be a lot of competition. That goes from the outfield to the infield to behind the plate and on the mound. It's great. It's what makes good teams.
"Being more athletic should give us a chance to be more creative on offense," Knutson concludes. "I think you're going to see us run a bit more, bunt and execute some offensive skills. I don't think you can say we're going to lead the nation in fielding again this year. We don't have the experience for that. But on the flip side, we think we have the guys that, if they play the way they can, we will be awfully dynamic and explosive. If our players just do the normal progression of improvement and if we can get contributions from the freshmen that I think we will - especially on the mound - I think our team is going to be fun to watch and will compete for championships."