New Digs. New Results: UW Surging Into Key UCLA Set
May 10, 2012
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - Aaron West stood squinting into the afternoon sun that was shining through the glass entryway in the Huskies' two-month-old, $4-million Wayne Gittinger Baseball Team Building. The place is so new it still smells throughout like a brand new car.
The glittering, long-awaited building - the first phase of the eventual renovation of Husky Ballpark -- has finally arrived.
Just like the team it houses.
"Two or three years ago, coming in here as a freshman, you know, there'd been promises and all this. It's finally getting done," West, UW's ace junior starter, said Wednesday of the building before surging Washington (26-18, 11-10 Pac-12) left it to practice for this weekend's showdown series against No. 11 UCLA (32-13, 12-9).
"The building pushes the team to work harder, play harder. And eventually that stadium is coming.
"It just keeps getting better and better."
Behind another coldly efficient night of strikes from the precise West (6-4, 2.55 ERA) in a series-opening shutout last weekend, Washington swept three games at USC to boost its chances at its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2004. The Huskies are coming off a 6-1 road trip and are above .500 in the ultra-competitive Pac-12 entering West's start Friday at 6 p.m. against UCLA, Washington's annual game downtown at Safeco Field.
Playing right now on the Seattle Mariners' big stage is fitting. This is a huge opportunity for Washington to solidify a foothold on a postseason bid. The Huskies are just two games back in the loss column of first-place Oregon in the conference. And they are starting to get national notice as an "under-the-radar" team that could make noise in the postseason.
This weekend's mega series with the Bruins finishes back on campus at Husky Ballpark with freshman Tyler Davis (2-2, 2.59) starting for UW Saturday and sophomore Jeff Brigham (0-0, 3.54) going Sunday afternoon.
"What a great opportunity this is going to be for us," said third-year Huskies coach and turnaround maestro Lindsay Meggs. "UCLA comes in here in the top 5 in the country in RPI. If we can win this series we are really going to put ourselves in a position where we control our own destiny, completely."
Then he thought about the athletic and pitching-heavy Bruins and said: "That's going to be our biggest challenge all year, to try to win two games against these guys."
Doing so would leave Washington 13-11 in the Pac-12 with six league games remaining - three at Arizona State (29-17, 14-10) next weekend and three at home against Washington State (24-20, 9-11) May 25-27.
The consensus is that any team that finishes with a .500-or-better record inside a conference with the third-highest Rating Percentage Index (RPI) in the country will be selected on Memorial Day for the 64-team NCAA tournament.
"I think it would be really tough to keep anybody in our conference out of the postseason if they have a .500 conference record and over 30 wins, just because the conference's RPI is so high," Meggs said Wednesday from his new, corner office overlooking the field from the Gittinger Baseball Building. "When we talk about survival, this conference is just such a bloodbath. You can win three just as easily as you can lose three. You can go from third place to seventh place in a weekend.
"There are no easy weekends. It's an absolute grind. What we've told our guys is the beauty of this conference is if you can survive the regular season you are as well-prepared as you can possibly be to make a difference in the postseason."
Friday is another showcase for West. The fourth-year junior has gone from sidelined for eight months following elbow surgery in 2010 as a sophomore, to undrafted, to a potential pick in the top 10 rounds of next month's Major League draft. He credits new command of his slider he throws 25-30 times a game. He found that playing summer-league ball in Humboldt, Calif., last year, after Huskies assistant Dave Dangler helped him change West's grip and wrist action on it.
"He's our guy. He's our horse," Meggs said. "We feel like every time he goes out there we should win."
West thinks UW's time for a return to the NCAAs is now.
"I think it's really realistic," the right-hander said. "If we keep playing like we are, like we did last weekend, like we've been for the last six to eight games, we have a really good chance to play with the best teams in the nation."
West came outside into the entryway of the building to escape the noise and attention of the full, new, expansive locker room. He had been sitting among teammates beyond the well-utilized ping-pong table in the room's center, just under a proclamation in white letters on the purple, north wall of the locker room.
The Nebraska city is the site of the annual College World Series.
Nope, these still-young Huskies - with four freshmen as everyday contributors -- aren't exactly downplaying this opportunity to reach the postseason.
"We talk about it every pregame: `This is our goal. This is why we take BP and do infield and pull for each other, because it's going to payoff for the tournament later on,'" West said.
Huskies players have been tweeting "shock the world" since winning the season's first series at San Diego State in mid-February.
"No one expects us to do anything after last year," West said of UW going 17-37 overall in 2011, 6-21 in the conference. "And we're basically shocking the world, showing everyone that we're here."
They're here because some timely hitting is starting to support Washington's solid pitching and defense. Meggs said the sweep of USC last weekend has "given us a taste of what we can do when we hit on all three cylinders (hitting, pitching and defense).
"It's the first time we've done that all year."
Meggs spent his first two seasons at Washington coaching players he didn't recruit. The mismatched one went 17-37 in the conference trying to play a power game. It was the opposite of Meggs' preferred style of manufacturing runs with speed and singles to support strong pitching and defense.
Now the Huskies are soaring -- by keeping other teams from scoring.
The Dawgs are third from the bottom of the Pac-12 in hits, runs scored, home runs and RBIs. But they are in this position to reach the NCAA tournament because their pitchers have allowed the fewest hits in the conference and have held opponents to just a .237 batting average, the second-lowest number in the league.
West and his Diamond Dawgs throw strikes. They are 17th nationally out of 291 Division-I teams in hits allowed per nine innings and 19th in walks per nine frames. Their combined walks-plus-hits per nine innings - the WHIP today's Sabermetrics gurus love to crack - is 15th in the country.
Plus, UW has committed the fewest errors in the Pac-12, just 38 in 44 games.
Yes, these are finally Meggs' Huskies.
"Our guys now see the light at the end of the tunnel," said the coach that won Division-II national titles at Chico State then turned around woeful Indiana State in less than three years before arriving at UW in 2009. "Every regional prediction out there has had us in (the NCAAs) the last three weeks. I think guys are doing the math on their own -- and trying not to get too far ahead of themselves - realizing now that is a realistic possibility.
"It's one we now expect to happen."
For a long time to come, perhaps. Consider: 14 new players from Meggs' huge recruiting class of 21 last fall are contributing regularly this spring.
The room for growth is as large as the Huskies' current opportunity to return to the postseason.
"Coach is making promises - and keeping them. We are making promises to work hard - and keeping them," West said. "It's shown.
"They've found a way to push us without making it seem like a negative," the pitcher said of Meggs and his staff. "We're working harder. His term is `buying in.' And we are buying in."
Asked if this is where he thought his Huskies would be in his third season, Meggs nodded his head.
"You know, I did," he said. "Personally, I had hoped we'd be in the middle of the conference in year three, and by year four in the upper third."
He also had hoped the privately funded team building would have exactly the effect it is already having. The players' area and lounge is downstairs. The second floor holds coaches' offices plus an attractive "Omaha Room" with a patio for hosting overlooking the field and Lake Washington.
"It shows the program is important. It's for the future," Meggs said. "I think the players really sense the commitment on the administrative side, and I think that gives them a good feeling.
"They have a home."
If they keep playing like this, the Huskies will have another new home next month: Back inside the NCAA tournament.