Jan. 7, 2003
For the first time since the Pac-10 merged its Northern and Southern baseball divisions in 1999, the Washington baseball team enters a new season on the heels of an NCAA Regional appearance the year before.
Washington was mired in the midst of a disappointing season midway through the 2002 campaign, but turned its fortunes completely around in the second half, ending the year in third place in the powerful Pac-10 and earning a trip to an NCAA Regional in Rice.
The Huskies used a Jay Garthwaite three-run homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to force Rice into a second championship game, but ran out of gas in the finale. This year, the UW baseball team has its sites set higher.
"The big thing is that we have a lot of experience," says Ken Knutson, who enters his 11th year as the Huskies' head coach in 2003. "That's not so unusual. But we have a chance to play no entirely new starters at any position on a given day. We could run out nine guys that have started a lot during their career.
"That experience creates our nucleus on the mound and in the field. We had some very good players leave the program, but we have plenty of good players back. It's their time. They just need to step up into their roles."
The Huskies received a welcomed surprise when righty Sean White decided to return for his senior season. White, one of the UW's top draft prospects in 2002, slipped to the later rounds after (seemingly unfounded) concerns about his arm. White didn't miss a start and won his last six decisions before another strong summer in the Cape Cod League. "Whitey was one of our key guys and his success paralleled the team's," Coach Knutson says. "He had a rough early period then caught fire down the stretch. "We didn't feel like we'd get him back. We felt that he was perhaps our top junior prospect last season. He should be one of the top pitchers in the conference."
A second returning starter to the Husky rotation is junior Clay Johnson, who emerged as a reliable weekend starter late last season.
"Clay, like White, struggled early," says Knutson, "then he added a slider and that gave him an out pitch. After that, he pitched well and competed. He was outstanding in the regional."
The third spot in the weekend rotation is technically still up for grabs, as are the fourth and fifth spots. However, junior Trevor Gibson, who has spent his first two years pitching exclusively out of the bullpen, emerged as the top candidate after an outstanding fall practice season.
"We felt really good about Gibson," Knutson says. "He had a rough 2002 due to some unusual injuries. Early on, though, he was a key bullpen guy. Now he'll need to compete for a starting position. He was our No. 1 guy last fall."
Entering the season, Knutson has a long list of pitchers that could see time as starters or relievers. He hopes that performance and circumstance will sort things out shortly after the season begins.
Senior Scott Robertson, juniors Brian Carter, Jeff Petersen, Joel Villalobos, Trent Baysinger and sophomores Will Fenton, David Dowling and Josh Conover finished the fall as the coach's top choices for those early-season innings.
"Fenton will probably be a 'silver bullet' for me," Knutson says of the right-hander fire-baller who finished as the teams' top reliever as a freshman in 2002. "He's got a great arm and four good pitches. He has a chance to be one of the best arms we've had since I've been here. Last year, he was our top freshman contributor on the mound along with Dowling, but they're radically different pitchers."
Dowling is a left-hander breaking ball specialist with excellent command who worked his way up the depth to start several games last year, including in the conference season. Carter, another southpaw, made a major jump last season and was a regular bullpen contributor. Petersen will look to make a jump up for his junior season. His stature and the velocity of his fastball make him a top prospect. Robertson, who relies on guile and the ability to throw a curve for a strike will look to return to the form that saw him emerge as the Husky closer in 2001.
Lefties Villalobos and Baysinger both come to Washington after successful junior college careers and should see plenty of action on the mound.
The right-handed Conover and freshmen Matt Kasser and Hunter Hughes, as well as left-hander Jamie Hawkins, will look to increase their innings. Conover's fastball has made strides and he added a slider in the off-season while Hawkins had an outstanding fall practice season. Kasser and Hughes were both top-level high school pitchers in the area last year.
Additionally, redshirt freshman Keaton Everitt, who underwent elbow surgery and missed last season, returns. Relatively inexperienced as a pitcher, the 6-foot-6, hard-throwing righty has tremendous upside and will look to develop this season.
"The best guys are going to pitch, period, "Knutson explains. "If you get guys out, you'll pitch. I'll let roles develop and the competition will take care of who gets innings. Guys will earn innings. That'll be based on history, the fall and then what they do in games. The first guys out there to begin the season will be those that pitched well last year and last fall."
"We're as experienced and talented behind the plate as we can be," Knutson says of his catching corps. "We're kind of returning three starters there. It reminds me of the year ( that we had Ryan Bundy, Pete Orgill and Dominic Woody [all future pros] at catcher."
Sophomore Aaron Hathaway, forced into duty last season by the loss to injury of returning starter Jefferson Thiel, had as much to do with the Huskies' turnaround as anyone. His defensive skills improved to the point where he made the NCAA Regional all-tournament team despite going 1-for-17 at the plate in the regional. He was also a first-team Freshman All-American.
"Hathaway improved so much last year. He needed reps and experience and then he turned into a very good player," Knutson says. "Early on, his confidence was low defensively, but he came on. Now he's a defensive weapon behind the plate."
Thiel, a redshirt junior, returns after undergoing "Tommy John" surgery on his right elbow prior to last season. A former Freshman All-America pick, Thiel was the UW starter behind the plate in both 2000 and 2001.
"It's been a year since his surgery and we'll have to see how he feels," Knutson says. "The prognosis is that he'll be 100 percent in February. Before he got hurt, he was a great catch-and-throw guy and an offensive threat. We'll have to find a way to get him plenty of ABs."
Junior Ben Johnson, who has made 31 starts at catcher over the last two years, brings a switch-hitting bat to the mix.
"Ben gives you a left-handed batting catcher as a switch hitter," Knutson says. "He missed the fall with a minor condition, but got the green light and is fine now."
The Huskies return three quarters of their infield from last season in tact, thanks again to a pleasant surprise in the form of three-year starting shortstop Tila Reynolds.
Going around the horn, at first base, the Huskies welcome back sophomore Kyle Larsen, a Freshman All-America after batting .342 and going through his first college season without an error.
"Kyle is the best defender that we've ever had at first base," Knutson says. "He's what you're supposed to look like as a first baseman. And he can really hit."
Last year, junior Greg Isaacson entered the lineup about a third of the way into the season and never lost his starting spot thanks to outstanding defense and a .315 average.
"Isaacson got the starting spot at second in the middle of the season and we ended up with one of the best defensive second basemen in the country playing every day," Knutson says. "He plays mistake-free baseball."
Reynolds, who's started 158 career games at shortstop, decided not to sign a pro contract after getting drafted in the 13th round last season. He was the Huskies' leading hitter last year with his .347 average and is a top-level defensive player.
"Getting Tila back for his senior year was as big a pleasant surprise as I've ever had as a head coach. He'll have a huge senior year," Knutson says. "He's really a complete player. He can beat you in a lot of different ways. "With he and Greg having a year together under their belts," he continues, "they can be one of the top middle-infield combinations in the country."
With the loss of three-year starting third baseman Michael Done, Washington will have one new starter in the infield, but junior John Otness has actually started 58 games over the last two seasons - at third, second and DH. He emerged as the starter after a battle with sophomore Nick Batkoski last fall.
"Otness was outstanding in the fall," Knutson says. "He's got the job heading into the season. He has the experience and he's worked very hard. He's been very productive when we've played him."
The Huskies have plenty of able backups around the infield. Junior Steve Ramsey has shown a sweet swing in limited action as a first baseman, left fielder and DH. A similar player is freshman Grant Gerrard, except that the left-handed Gerrard may also pitch along with playing first and the outfield. Junior transfer Chad Boudon, who possesses as much raw power as anyone on the team, is also a first baseman and outfielder.
Batkoski will certainly get time at third and DH while transfer Brian Bauer, from San Diego State, can play all four spots.
"The guy that stood out in the fall was Brent Lillibridge," Knutson says of his freshman shortstop, a likely starter there had Reynolds not returned. "We have to get him on the field somehow. If he plays like he did in the fall, we'll have to. He can play anywhere on the field except catcher. He runs, catches it and can really hit."
Junior Mike Wagner, who moved from third base to left field last season, was a Summer All-American and his summer league's MVP after closing out the season as a semi-regular pick in left field. Sophomore Taylor Johnson closed out the year as the Huskies' regular right fielder and hopes his late-season successes will carry over to 2003.
"Mike and Taylor played very well in the fall and last year," Knutson says. "We think they both have the physique and the tools you want from good outfielders. Wagner had a big summer. He's starting to scratch that potential he has. You hope the summer success sets him up for a big junior year.
"Taylor is a complete package as an outfielder that can beat you with his legs, bat and arm. He's a No. 3-hitter candidate with Wagner, assuming that Larsen hits fourth."
Center field is a little more open to question. The Huskies have two experienced players in seniors Brandon Jacobson and Justin Drake as well as a sophomore transfer in Devin Warner. Freshman Simi Reynolds, younger brother of Tila, will also get a fair shot at the starting role.
"Brandon has had some great stretches of productivity in his career here," Knutson says. Plus, we have a good transfer in Devin Warner, who is physically very strong, has good tools and knows how to play. "Simi is probably our best defender out there. Either he or Drake is our fastest player. Simi has great instincts in center field and has everything you want from a defensive player.
Boudon, who could also play first and DH, adds power to the mix while freshman Nick Burnham is a fast, athletic player that will no doubt get a look at any of the three outfield spots. Isaiah Stanback, a scholarship freshman quarterback on the Husky football team, will play baseball this spring as well. The athletic center fielder will split time once spring football practice begins.
Knutson knows that things are set up for a good season in 2003, perhaps even a great season if things go well. All the pieces are in place. What's left is to roll out the ball, play the games and see what happens.
"We have to win while also developing our young players. But we also have to play our best guys," Knutson says. "That's the focus of our coaching. It's a juggling act - developing guys, keeping them sharp and keeping them happy."
The Husky coach hopes that the tide of success in the last half of the 2002 season continues to roll into 2003.
"Confidence isn't something you can fake," he says. "You have to earn it. Until you've had success, you're going to have problems with how you see yourself. This group of veteran players now knows what it takes. They should have that confidence that success breeds.
"The key is that they remember what hard work it took to be good. We need to be proud, but there are more steps to be taken. There are bigger things out there than just going to the regionals - bigger things than finishing third in the conference - and this team is good enough to do better than that."