Feb. 5, 2007
After having earned a trip to the NCAA tournament for three straight seasons in 2002, 2003 and 2004, the Husky baseball team came up just short of a postseason berth each of the last two seasons, finishing perhaps only one win short on both occasions.
At first glance, someone looking at the 2007 season might assume that the team will be in some sort of rebuilding mode, having lost the NCAA strikeouts leader and holder of nearly every Husky pitching record, another starting pitcher, the No. 2 home run hitter in school history, and a three-year starting catcher.
However, heading into the spring season, 15th-year head coach Ken Knutson sees his team as unusually deep. And the large number of players who saw significant game time last year as freshmen in 2006 are, of course, now sophomores in 2007.
His job as head coach will largely consist of making a lot of choices as to who plays and where, but it's a "problem" he's happy to have.
"Last year, we were one of the youngest teams in the conference and I thought we competed well," Knutson says. "We didn't improve over the course of the season as much as I wanted us to, but I think this is the year that we'll see the improvement. There's something to be said about young guys who didn't do as well as they thought they should. It takes away any complacency. I think everybody's hungry and the competition is stiff."
Here's a look at the 2007 Husky baseball team:
Obviously, losing Golden Spikes Award winner Tim Lincecum, as well as fellow three-year starter Kyle Parker, to the professional ranks leaves a hole in the Huskies' pitching staff. However, there's more experience than there might seem, with three pitchers returning who spent time in the rotation in 2006.
"We'll miss Tim," Knutson says. "We're talking about the best pitcher in the history of the program and, in my opinion, the best pitcher in America last year. But I think we'll make up for it as an entire staff."
Junior lefty Nick Hagadone had a breakout season last year, starting five times and appearing in relief on 23 other occasions. Sophomore lefty Tyler Cheney started 12 times while junior right-hander Elliott Cribby, who was the UW's closer for most of the season, notching 10 saves, also started five games. All three will be key figured in the Husky staff in 2007.
"At this point, we're going to give Hagadone first crack at the number one job," Knutson says. "He had a good season for us last year. Most of his really strong appearances were out of the bullpen, but we feel like he's ready to become a really good starter for us."
"Tyler had 12 starts last year as a freshman and he'll be in the competition," Knutson explains. "Mooney really wants an opportunity to start. He had a really good half of a season for us last year. He'll be in the mix. You'll also see Nobles in there. He was one of our top recruits and he pitched well in the fall. How he acclimates to the college game will determine what he does this year."
Meanwhile, Knutson expects Cribby to remain in the closer's role, but notes that if he isn't getting used enough, that could change.
"I think Cribby has a chance to be an All-American," Knutson says. "I've always been a big proponent of a strong bullpen. I think a powerful bullpen is the best tool you have as a manager."
"The thing we have this year is really good depth in the staff," Knutson notes. "I don't know if we'll go with the same three starters all year or if we'll have really good quality in long relief and in the mid-week games, but the front end of the staff really should be good."
McKerney is either going to be a very strong part of the bullpen or a starting pitcher. Jorden Merry is also in the mix as a starter. He was good in the fall.
Fourth-year junior Harrison Bishop, a junior college transfer, could start or serve in the bullpen. Bishop, a hard thrower, has worked through injuries to get to the UW, but is ready to go now.
"Bishop hasn't pitched much in a couple of years," says Knutson, "but his stuff is plenty good enough for our league."
Another interesting addition is another fourth-year junior, Johnny DuRocher, a quarterback on the football team who has come out for baseball this year. DuRocher, who had successful surgery to remove a benign brain tumor last fall, hasn't played baseball since his sophomore year of high school.
"DuRocher is a good athlete, but he hasn't played in a while," Knutson says. "But you always have this feeling with Johnny that he gets it. He's got some poise. He's taken snaps in Husky Stadium, and I think that gives him something."
Another freshman pitcher will look to get into the mix after missing time in the fall due to injury: right-hander Brent Miller. Lefty Ben Guidos, the state's 3A player of the year, will sit out the season after elbow surgery. Finally, infielder Brian Pearl, who will likely start out the season with the hitters, could also see time on the mound.
Junior Joey Dunn is the only catcher on the team who's ever played in a Husky uniform, but that doesn't mean the position is all that inexperienced. He's joined by sophomore Max Kwan, who started 33 games as a freshman last year at Tulane, junior college transfer Ryan Scott and freshman Bryce Anderson.
"Joey's always been a good leader and he handles the pitchers well," Knutson says. "I think Max does too. Guys like throwing to them."
Dunn, however, missed much of fall practice with an injury, allowing Kwan and Scott to see the majority of time behind the dish.
"What that injury did was allow Scott to have a lot of opportunities in the scrimmages," Knutson says. "He and Max caught all the time. Scott has some physical tools that make him an interesting guy."
Anderson, meanwhile, is making the transition from having been an infielder. Knutson notes that his offensive abilities might be enough to get him some at bats this year.
"I feel good about the catcher position as a whole," Knutson concludes. "I think we have a chance to be at least three deep right away."
While three of the four spots in the infield are expected to be held down by veteran players, there are still plenty of competition, question marks and variations, particularly at second base.
Fifth-year senior Curt Rindal earned All-Pac-10 first-team honors last year, after batting .350 with 21 doubles. He returns to that role as the 2007 gets underway.
"Curt's going to hit in the middle of the lineup and be an important guy," Knutson says. "He has a lot of experience and he's really hungry to get back to the postseason."
"Both of those guys can really hit," Knutson says. "It's a good situation. Petersen and Lind are going to be competing for playing time and both will be DH candidates."
At shortstop, sophomore Danny Cox returns, having started 52 games there last year.
"I thought that Danny was one of the most improved players we had in the fall," Knutson says. "His best asset has always been his glove. He just catches balls. But with more experience, his offense has come along. He had a good fall. He was more consistent at the plate and had some big days in our scrimmages."
Pearl, a freshman who could also pitch, enters the season as the No. 2 shortstop, but Knutson notes that he pushed Cox in the fall.
Matt Hague, a third-team All-American last year as an outfielder, has essentially switched spots with Matt Stevens, who played third base last year. Hague will play third while Stevens moves to right field.
"There's no reason to think that Hague won't be a really good third baseman and Stevens looks really comfortable in the outfield," Knutson says. "Hague is just a really good offensive player. He gets it. He knows how to play. After two years, he has the highest career batting average in school history. That speaks for itself. He should be an All-American and should compete for the conference batting championship."
At second base is where all the questions arise. Certainly one top candidate to start there is sophomore Bradley Boyer, who started 37 games as a freshman. He'll get a push from junior college transfer Ricky Reavis, the Northwest's top JC hitter last season. Reavis will join the team at the start of the winter quarter in January. Add to them freshmen Doug Cherry, Travis Nishioka and Pearl, and there's bound to be quite a contest for playing time.
"We still have a lot of questions at second base, but I think we have a lot of answers as well," Knutson explains. "Boyer was hurt all fall and didn't play. Reavis is transferring in for the start of the new quarter, so we didn't see him either. Pearl played there a little bit, but mostly played shortstop. Cherry came on late during our fall world series, where he played well, and Nishioka was also in the mix. He's fast and he doesn't swing and miss very often.
"There are a lot of really young players who are going to have to compete," Knutson continues. "Boyer can also play third or in the outfield and Reavis could be a third baseman or a DH. It's wide open at second base."
Another player in the mix is freshman Aaron Russell. Despite missing a good deal of time in the offseason due to injury, Knutson says. "Russell could be a utility guy who is a good enough defender to play all four infield spots."
Much like the infield, there are a good number of players vying for time in the outfield. How it shakes out, Knutson says, is largely up to the players themselves. In other words, whoever is getting the job done will see the most playing time.
The biggest quandary is probably in center field, where three experienced players enter the spring looking to take a hold of the job. Juniors Michael Burgher and Andy Lentz have both seen significant action in their UW careers, and sophomore Brett Kaluza started 24 games as a freshman.
"They all profile as really good defenders," Knutson says. "Right now, Lentz is probably the top guy, but I want to get Mike on the field as well due to his speed and I think Kaluza would be a very productive player if he was out there every day. It'll get down to whoever swings the bat the best and gets hot at the plate is going to play."
As noted, junior slugger Matt Stevens, who hit 17 homers in 2006, is making the move from third base to right field. He'll open the season as the starter there.
"Matt's offensive improvement was drastic in the fall," Knutson says. "He was getting on base a lot more and had a lot more confidence. He has tremendous raw power. He's probably our best combination of speed and power on the team."
Also figuring in are two newcomers, redshirt freshman Ty Rasmussen, a transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette, and freshman Jacob Clem, the younger brother of Zach Clem, who hit 20 homers as a UW senior last year. Both have tremendous potential at the plate and could emerge as options in left field or at designated hitter.
"Rasmussen has had most of the injuries that you can have, so we figure he's running out of things to hurt," Knutson says. "There are days when we feel like he's the best hitter in our program. He's a game changer, a middle-of-the-order hitter with tremendous power. But he's a redshirt freshman who's never played. If he's healthy, he's going to compete at DH with a couple others. Somebody's going to nail that spot down or there's going to be an awfully powerful platoon. I'll have some options offensively.
"Clem swung the bat really well in the fall," Knutson continues. "He had a stretch when he was hitting as well as anyone on the team. I think in the future, he'll be a middle-of-the-order type of guy too."
The 2007 Huskies are a team that combines a rare mix of experience and youth, with both often coming in the same players. Knutson, who enters the season just three victories short of 500, is looking forward to the number of options his depth should give him, both in the batting order and on the mound.
"This team is deep enough that I'm going to get to play guys who are productive," Knutson says. "We'll find productivity at all the spots. It should be fun."