May 22, 2009
BY JEREMY COTHRAN
SEATTLE - If Kyle Conley manages to homer this weekend against Washington State, he'll have earned himself two things - the coveted distinction as the top home run hitter in school history, and a knuckle sandwich.
The former is because homer No. 43 will pass Ed Erickson for the most home runs in University of Washington history. The latter is from teammate Jake Rife, who doesn't want his friend to get any big ideas that records carry much weight around this Huskies team.
"Oh, he'll get a punch to the stomach," said a grinning Rife. "And that's about it."
Even if Conley doesn't eclipse the record, the right fielder will still be recognized as one of the most dangerous Pac-10 hitters of his era. Conley stands a sturdy 6-4 with forearms the size of porterhouse slabs. His power - capable of producing a display of tape-measure shots - is well respected around the conference. This season alone, Conley was hitting .325 with 19 homers and 55 RBI prior to this weekend's three-game set with the Cougars. His slugging and on-base percentages (.692 and .424) are also in the elite category. As the anchor in the cleanup spot, Conley has buoyed a Huskies (23-25) team that doesn't possess a ton of power as a whole.
Conley was a unique find for coach Ken Knutson. A native of Richland, Wash., located in the Tri-Cities area, Conley didn't appear on the radar for many programs. But he had a couple of attributes Knutson found intriguing. First was his frame, which Knutson thought could eventually be molded into producing power. The next was Conley's humble demeanor and his commitment to academics.
"He's always been strong, a big guy, but now he's really fit," Knutson said. "He looks like a big leaguer, as far as physically."
Much of that strength was developed during the summer of 2007, when Conley was recuperating from a torn labrum in his shoulder with Rife, who was out after wrist surgery. Unable to play summer ball, Conley and Rife used their free time to lift weights with UW strength and conditioning coach Hans Straub, who put the two through killer, non-stop workouts.
Now, Conley is able to drive pitches the other way to right and right-center field. This is key because Conley doesn't see many quality pitches to hit because of his marked-man status in the Huskies lineup. Sometimes this can be frustrating, but Conley is adept at beating the scouting report on him. Rife noted that last season, Pac-10 pitchers were throwing him nothing but fastballs inside. When that failed, pitchers shifted gears this year and began probing the outer edge of the plate. What's also helped this season has been the solid contributions of Rife and first baseman Troy Scott, who often bookend Conley in the lineup.
"When I get on base, Kyle is going to get more fastballs," Rife said. "And with pitchers knowing Troy is on deck, they're not going to dump a bunch of sliders to get to a guy who has 10 homers. They're going to have to pitch."
The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Conley in the 16th round last year, but upon consultation with Knutson and others, he decided to return to school for another season. For one, Conley didn't want his 2008 numbers to be seen as an aberration. He had a breakout year with 19 homers and 57 RBI, along with a .337 batting average coming off the injury, but scouts could write off such a spike as a fluke. Conley also expressed some displeasure to Knutson at the draft pecking order in the Pac-10, which saw some sluggers from other teams receive what he believed to be unjustified higher selections.
"It wasn't the right situation," Conley said. "I've heard that to be given a real chance at a progression to make it to the major leagues, you have to be taken pretty high and be considered a real prospect, instead of just getting picked up."
Conley's decision to stay in Montlake another year should pay off for him. Now he's positioned to improve his draft slot. This time around, if the situation is suitable, Conley said he's ready to test the professional baseball waters. Should it not pan out, he's just a quarter shy from earning his degree.
"If the opportunity is right, then sure," Conley said of his upcoming decision. "I want to, but it has to be smart."
As for the home run record, Conley is obviously thinking about it. He came to Washington with a goal of being a middle-of-the-order type player, not one of the greatest players in the team's history. This weekend in Pullman, he plans on having plenty of family and friends on hand, with Richland only a two-hour or so drive away from WSU's campus.
Erickson, for one, doesn't mind ceding the record to Conley. He nearly lost it 2006 when Zach Clem was just one shy of tying the mark with a couple weeks left in the season. But Clem got injured and didn't homer the rest of the way.
The ex-first baseman Erickson now works as the Assistant Director of Fund Development in the athletic department, so he's been able to make the short walk down to Husky Ballpark to watch Conley.
Erickson joked that at least all his homers have left the yard, unlike Conley, who tied the record on an inside-the-park shot recently down in Arizona. But then reality set in when Erickson echoed some words from assistant coach Joe Ross.
"`If you take the average home run distance between Ed and Kyle, there's absolutely no question mark who's hit them further,'" Erickson quoted Ross as saying. "I wasn't the kind of guy to hit them halfway up the light tower. They would skip the fence and go over. But Kyle hits them, and they're just no-doubters."