April 24, 2008
By Allen Wagner
Husky Ballpark has seen many legends grace its grass in the years past, but none are perhaps more intriguing or nationally relevant than UW alumni and San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Tim Lincecum.
Lincecum had all the skills necessary to make it in the big leagues in the beginning, but throwing for the Huskies for coach Ken Knutson helped him develop thoroughly and brought big attention to the quality of the pitching coming out of Washington.
"He looked pretty much the same coming in as he did when he left and as he does now with San Francisco," Knutson said of Lincecum. "I wasn't going to screw him up. What he did was really good and I would try to enhance rather than change him."
Knutson did just that, and after Lincecum and last year's first round draft prospect, left-handed pitcher Nick Hagadone, left the team as seniors to play in the majors, Knutson and fellow pitching coach Tighe Dickinson still continue to develop Husky pitchers.
The coaches have to begin somewhere, and recruiting players out of high school can be interesting as they look for specific attributes. For Dickinson, it's all about command.
"We look at guys that have some velocity," he said. "But we're really interested in their secondary pitches and if they can throw those for strikes."
Knutson concurred, and added that it also might be good for an incoming pitcher to understand what it feels like to take losses, because college baseball is seldom forgiving when it comes to opposing offenses.
Every pitcher has had similar experiences in that sense, but each has different views on how to best develop as a college pitcher.
Sophomore right-handed pitcher Cam Nobles, who played at Jackson High School in Mill Creek, Wash., before coming to the UW, is an example of the recruit definition of a guy who can throw high speed pitches for strikes.
Although he admits his fastball isn't where he'd like it to be, Nobles recognizes the value of being able to accurately throw secondary pitches.
"I've always had good off speed," he said. "I can throw my three pitches for strikes."
But for Nobles, freshman year was not spent developing pitches. He suffered a stress fracture in his throwing arm and had to sit out virtually the whole season, but he didn't let the injury get him down.
"It definitely set me back playing on the field," he said. "But at the same time I was able to work out. Whenever you have an injury you come back stronger because you rehab so much and you work out so much."
The coaches worked with him to build strength and are now working with him in some unique ways on his fastball pitch.
A variety of exercises help him work on his problems, including situating a fake rubber hitter, known as Bush, around the plate in different areas to help find the strike zone.
"I'll put Bush all around the plate and act like he's a batter up there and try and spot my fastball," Nobles said. "We do a lot of drills, a bunch of things off the mound to get your mind set to throw fastballs for strikes."
Junior left-handed pitcher Nick Haughian says that these types of drills, as well as building strength and stamina, are important, but that working on mentally preparing yourself can be an even bigger asset.
"My biggest advantage over any of my opponents is my ability to maintain my composure," Haughian said. "Regardless of how good or bad things are going, you try to keep an even keel so when things do go bad you're able to get back on track."
A prime example of Haughian's mindset came during Sunday's start at Cal when Haughian gave up four runs in the seventh inning but gathered himself and pitched a solid eighth inning to keep the Dawgs in the game.
For Haughian, it's these types of experiences that he believes help build a solid college pitcher.
"You want to feel like you aren't limited by anything," he said. "I want to feel like, regardless of what kind of pitch I'm throwing or what I'm asked to do with the ball, I can do it."
Fellow junior Jorden Merry, who transferred to UW from Lower Columbia Community College in Longview, Wash., can attest to that.
"You're only able to control yourself and what you're able to do, so you can't really control what other teams are about," he said. "You just have to realize that through practice and being on the mound."
The Husky pitchers aren't looking to become the next Tim Lincecum, but they are developing in their own ways. With the help of the coaching staff, they have posted great numbers thus far in the season.
Part pure talent, part developing through practice, experience and hard work, the UW pitching staff is a continuously growing unit, and Knutson said part of it comes with being willing and able to do the work necessary to become a good pitcher.
"We let our guys succeed and fail on their [own] because of their efforts," he said. "We're going to show them different ways to do things and through discovery they find out what works best for them."
Knutson has produced 17 All-Pac-10 pitchers and three first-round draft picks in his 15 years as coach of the Washington baseball team. Based on his continued philosophy and the talent that gets developed, this program will likely produce more.
"If you have the desire to be great then this is a great program because we're going to turn you loose and let you do your thing," he said.