Huskies ready to defend Pac-10 title.
With the talent that the 1998 Washington baseball team has returning from its 1997 Pacific-10 Conference championship club, it would seem that the only team that can beat the Huskies this year is the Huskies.
In other words, says sixth-year head coach Ken Knutson, if Washington plays up to its talent level, there's no reason that the Huskies won't be a factor in the postseason once again. "We have tremendous potential," Knutson says. "If we do everything right, we have a chance to be as good as anyone in the country.
"My goal every year is to compete for the national championship," he continues, "and we have the talent to do that."
Last year's Husky team beat Stanford in a best-of-three series for the Pac-10 crown, then fell only one win shy of its first College World Series appearance. The 1998 club returns six everyday starters from last season's lineup, as well as seven other position players that started 14 or more games. On the mound, two of the staff's top three starters are back and five of the team's top six relievers return.
The '97 team hit .340 and set new school records in batting, hits, runs, doubles, triples, home runs, RBI and total bases. The pitching staff racked up more strikeouts than any other Husky team.
"Offensively, we're really dangerous," Knutson says. "I'll put nine good hitters in the lineup every day, and we have good left-right and speed-power balance. On the hill, we've never been deeper and we may have an awesome bullpen - not just a closer, but somebody for every situation."
Washington will begin a new era in its baseball history this season when it begins play at the new Husky Ballpark after 30-plus seasons at Graves Field. The new park will offer an AstroTurf infield and views of Lake Washington, the Cascades and Mount Rainier.
Here's a breakdown of the 1998 Husky team:
The big job for Washington's starting pitching staff will be to determine an ace. For the past two seasons, Jake Kringen served in that role, but he and his 110 strikeouts and 110.2 innings he threw last season are gone to the professional ranks.
Two of the team's top three starters from a season ago return in junior lefty Matt Hampton (7-1, 4.40) and sophomore righty Jeff Heaverlo (7-4, 6.43). A third starter will be junior right-hander Bryan Williamson (4-2, 2.89), who spent last season as a right fielder and closer.
"Hampton had a very good year," Knutson says. "He's a workhorse and he'll be even better with added confidence and experience."
Heaverlo, who fanned 88 hitters last year and threw a complete game to beat Mississippi State in his final start of the season, is a hard-thrower with a tremendous slider.
Williamson became the Husky closer last year when Cody Morrison suffered a minor injury. This year, he'll be in the rotation, thanks in part to having Morrison back in his old role.The 6-foot-6 Williamson throws overhand and sidearm, was over-powering at times last season and earned a tryout with USA National Team at season's end.
At the fourth starter position, the competition begins. Sophomore Travis Anderson (0-1, 8.74) leads the list. The big right-hander surprised the coaching staff early in his freshman year with his velocity and travelled all season. He continued to improve in the off-season. "Travis is probably the hardest thrower on the team," Knutson says.
Joining Anderson in the hunt for a starting role are freshmen right-handers Jeff Carlsen and John Gillespie and freshmen southpaws Mike Bomar and Daniel Jahn - all four players were selected in the draft last June. All will see time as freshmen and will likely start somewhere down the line if not during their first seasons.
Knutson is glad to have Morrison (1-0, 2.30) back in the closing role. The senior submariner led the Pac-10 North in saves two seasons ago and seemed to be rolling again in 1996 before suffering the minor injury. Morrison has always been nearly un-hittable when he throws strikes consistently, getting groundouts and strikeouts on a routine basis.
"The strength of our bullpen is exciting," Knutson says, referring not only to Morrison, but the other arms he will call on.
Aside from the freshmen that don't make the starting rotation, Knutson will have veterans Wayne Lee (1-0, 4.87), Ken Ferguson (0-0, 7.94) and Tom Linarelli and freshmen Matt Gardner and Matt Massingale playing various bullpen roles.
Lee's 90-mph fastball makes him a power pitcher who has made drastic improvement in each of his three Husky seasons. Ferguson is another hard thrower that showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman last year. Linarelli, who didn't see any action in his first season on the team last year, is the only Husky pitcher that throws a split-finger pitch. He could get his shot this season. Finally, Gardner is a left-hander with a three-quarter motion that makes Knutson think he'll use him a lot against left-handed hitters.
Knutson calls Massingale a future closer candidate. He is among a large group of freshman arms. Other than those already mentioned, the future is also bright for lefties Owen Garmire, Kurt Lehrmann and Matt Hollod, who is also a strong hitter.
It's an understatement to say that the Huskies are deep at catcher. Washington boasts five players that saw at least a little time behind the plate last year, as well as two true freshman backstops. But while the catching corps is deep, its leader is obvious.
"Ryan Bundy is the number one guy," Knutson says. "He's one of the top catch-and-throw guys in the country and is an exceptional defensive catcher. He may be the most athletic catcher in the nation."
Bundy (.311-6-40) started 52 games last year and improved his offensive numbers greatly over his freshman season. Knutson hopes for continued improvement in 1998 for Bundy, who could likely be an early-round draft pick.
Fighting for the number two catching spot are junior Pete Orgill (.239-3-19) and sophomore Dominic Woody (.358-3-17). Both players also play first base and have spent considerable time at designated hitter. Orgill, a left-handed hitter, has struggled with a shoulder problem through his first two seasons. He appears healthy and Knutson hopes that he can push Bundy.
Knutson says that Woody has tremendous offensive potential and hopes that he'll be the Huskies' starter once Bundy leaves. Junior Kevin Ticen, who doubled in his only at bat last year, was one of the fall's biggest surprises and may be the No. 3 catcher, depending on Orgill's health. Another junior walk-on, Jason Koehler, is also a strong hitter.
Freshman Jake Gann has an exceptional arm and good power and Chad Dias, who had health problems in the fall and winter, may be the Huskies' catchers of the future.
Two of Washington's four infield positions are absolutely set in stone. Barring mishaps, juniors Kevin Miller (.384-12-73) and Ryan Lentz (.327-9-69) will start every day at shortstop and third base, respectively.
Miller, the two-time Pac-10 North Player of the Year, is a tremendous offensive player who played all of last season with a minor cartilage tear in his knee, an injury that affected his range at shortstop, but has been fully repaired.
"Kevin was outstanding in the fall," Knutson says. "He's fully recovered from his knee injury - he was better than at any time last season. He can be a total package player - offense and defense. He'll attract an awful lot of attention from professional baseball this year."
The same goes for Lentz, a junior whose offensive jump from freshman to sophomore was amazing as he broke the UW doubles record last season with 26. "A left-handed, power-hitting third baseman is a great commodity," Knutson says. "Ryan may have the best tools of anyone in our program, and you'll see improvements in his defense; he'll be an excellent AstroTurf player."
At second base, the Huskies have, essentially, two returning starters in senior Chris Whitemarsh (.262-4-13) and junior Darin Nakagawa (.255-0-6), who began a regular platoon at second base midway through last season.
"Whitemarsh will have first crack at the job," Knutson says. "Whether or not we platoon will be based on how he plays. Nakagawa will get to play there too, and he can back up at all three spots."
Another player with an eye on the second base job is freshman Marc Rittenhouse. "He'll be an outstanding player," Knutson says. "He has very good instincts and is very fundamentally sound."
At first base is sophomore Ed Erickson (.333-8-25), who will have the formidable job of replacing Ryan Soules, who hit .383 with 12 homers and 67 RBI last year. Erickson is, perhaps, the most powerful hitter on the team as his eight homers last year came in only 99 at bats. Knutson says that Erickson has both the defensive skills and enough ability to hit lefties that he may play everyday.
Backing Erickson up is Woody, a right-handed hitter, and Orgill, a lefty. Both are backup catchers.
Aside from Nakagawa, who can play second, short or third, the other primary infield backup is freshman Greg Brooks, who Knutson says will see some game action this year as he stands to become the Huskies' future shortstop.
Washington lost its starting center fielder from a year ago when Jamie Porter signed a professional contract. That and the fact that former right fielder Bryan Williamson will hit only as the designated hitter this season would seem to indicate that the Huskies lack experience in the outfield.
Despite those facts, however, the Huskies have one everyday starter and three other significant players returning to the outfield.
The marquee returner is Chris Magruder (.400-8-54), perhaps the nation's top leadoff man. Last year, Magruder turned in one of the most impressive seasons in UW history, breaking the team records for hits, runs and stolen bases. He went on to become a star player for the USA National Team.
After having played left and right field in his first two seasons, Magruder will take over in center this year. "Chris may be the premier leadoff hitter in the country, certainly on the West Coast," Knutson says. "He can beat you in a lot of ways. He's a very complete player that has elevated himself to the top."
Sophomore Kyle Woods (.333-1-10) will most likely be an everyday starter in left field and could hit second in the lineup behind Magruder. Probably the team's faster runner, Knutson calls Woods an "impact offensive player."
Juniors Jim Na (.365-4-30) and Nick Stefonick (.317-5-39) both split time in the outfield and at DH last year. The pair could form a platoon in right field this season with Stefonick also getting some time in left. Knutson calls Stefonick an excellent all-around player while Na has great left-handed power and is one of the team's captains, along with Magruder.
Knutson will try to find playing time for two other players - sophomore Dwight DeMar and freshman Tyson Boston. Knutson says that DeMar, along with Ticen, had the biggest off-season improvement. A speedy switch-hitter, he also has some power. Boston is the highest-drafted high school outfielder ever to attend the UW. According to Knutson, he possesses the best arm and is one of the fastest runners on the team.
Two other freshmen - Hollod and Jahn (both also pitchers) - may also get a chance to play a little outfield, but are probably more likely to find a spot further in the future.
Finally, Williamson (.381-4-58), who started much of last season in right field, will move to the starting pitching rotation and will likely be an everyday designated hitter. The power-hitting junior was perhaps the team's best clutch hitter last season.
As mentioned earlier, the 1998 season marks a new era in Husky baseball with the opening of the new ballpark. It also is the first season that the Pac-10 Northern Division teams will play regular-season three-game series against the Southern Division (the games do not count in the standings) and it's the first time that the Northern Division champ will host the Pac-10 Championship Series. Knutson says that both of these new scheduling aspects will bring excitement to the team and its fans.
The new field will also help the Huskies in a myriad of ways. The fact that the team will be more likely to get to practice on a real field prior to its first game will give the Huskies a better shot at starting the season on a roll.
The 1998 team may be both the most talented and experienced team in Husky history. Everything seems to be coming together for a big season on the new field. What a way to start a new era.