Husky Baseball Season Nearly Ready To Roll
Jan. 15, 2004
When the Pacific-10 Conference's two divisions merged prior to the 1999 baseball season, it marked a decided challenge for the three former Northern Division teams.
While it may have taken a couple of years for Washington to rise to that challenge, the Huskies have shown they can indeed compete at the level of one of the nation's top conferences. Two consecutive third-place finishes, as well as back-to-back NCAA appearances, have proven that the Dawgs belong.
The 2004 season presents a new challenge to Ken Knutson's 12th Husky team. This time around, the Diamond Dawgs aim to prove that their program has the depth of talent to sustain their recent high level of play.
It's not as if the 2004 season looks like a rebuilding year. On the contrary, the Huskies return nearly all of an infield that played the largest role in smashing the school record for fielding percentage last season. There's also loads of depth in the bullpen and a long list of talented hitters that have served mainly part-time roles in the past.
However, the loss of a four-year starting shortstop, two power-hitting outfielders and all three regular weekend starters does present a formidable task for Knutson and his team.
The loss of Sean White and Jeff Petersen, who were both drafted and signed after the 2003 season, and Clay Johnson, who transferred, means that the Huskies must replace the three pitchers that made up their weekend rotation for most of last year.
Knutson has a number of options in this regard: moving former relievers to the rotation, promoting part-time or mid-week starters, relying on players that missed most or all of last year due to injury or going with one or more of his talented corps of freshmen.
Potentially, Knutson could have junior Will Fenton to serve as his No. 1 starter. Last season, the hard-throwing righty posted a simply amazing season as he didn't allow a single run in 32.1 innings of work. He went 2-0 with 12 saves and held opponents to a paltry .145 average. However, he was limited in that he generally could work only once a weekend. Moving him to the starting rotation may allow Knutson to get a lot more innings out of his most proven pitcher.
'Fenton had the best year I've ever seen,' Knutson says. 'When he pitched, we won. I feel like starting may be easier on him. It might be his future.'
Gibson started six games last year and was mostly very effective, posting a 3-0 record. He had off-season surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow and should return to full health. Villalobos was dominant at Bellevue CC before coming to the UW. An unusual arm ailment forced him to rest for the entire 2003 season, but that rest served its purpose as he returned as a top pitcher during fall practice.
'Gibson is the unknown,' Knutson says. 'He's a bonus if he's back to his form of the fall of 2002 when he was our top guy. Joel had a good, healthy fall. He was a guy that we'd expected to start last season.'
Last season, Matt Kasser, a hard-throwing righty, was dominant when his command was on. He could see time as a starter. Fellow soph, Keaton Everitt, a six-foot-seven righty, also has starting in his future. While very inexperienced, Everitt is a trememdous prospect thanks to his size and the velocity with which he throws.
'Kasser had a very good freshman year,' Knutson says. 'He's got enough stuff to be a very versatile pitcher. And now Keaton has had a year of health. He works so hard. Consistency and opportunity will make him a really good pitcher.
With all of those options, Knutson may not have to rely on freshman starters as much as it might seem from the outside. However, the talent of those freshmen might force him to give them a chance. The UW brought in what may be its best ever pitching class this year and while only time will tell, all four freshmen - Richie Lentz, Tim Lincecum, Kyle Parker and Jordan Ponzoha - could someday be weekend starters.
'We feel like these guys will contribute heavily to our program,' Knutson explains. 'They're talented, they're into it and they're going to push everyone for innings.'
Lentz, who also plays outfield, could start or close, with some of that depending on how much he plays in the outfield or as the DH. 'Richie was a national recruit and could really be a good two-way player,' Knutson says. 'His stuff lets you think he could do anything. It also depends on what we end up doing with Fenton.'
'Parker is a bulldog with really good stuff,' Knutson continues. 'He's got a low-90s fastball, a good breaking ball and his change has really come along.'
Lincecum, the state's player of the year in 2003, also possesses a low-90s fastball, but his best pitch is his late-breaking, hard curve. 'That curve is dominant,' says his coach. 'He could throw it every pitch.'
Ponzoha reminds Knutson of former All-Pac-10 righty Shawn Kohn, 'except he's bigger and he will throw harder.'
Junior Josh Conover also figures in the mix as he was very solid late in the year as the Huskies' top mid-week starter, compiling a 4-0 mark in that role.
While only four or five of the aforementioned players can fill starting roles, the rest will help compile what should be a deep bullpen, joining four lefties - senior Trent Baysinger, juniors David Dowling and Jamie Hawkins and sophomore Emmanuel Pedroza - and a right-hander, Hunter Hughes.
Last year, Baysinger emerged as the Huskies' top setup man and could continue in the role or perhaps close this year.
'Trent would also be a terrific starter,' Knutson says, 'but he does so well in his current role thanks to his command and his ability to get right-handed hitters out. His versatility really sets up the bullpen.'
Dowling generally served in long relief and did it well enough to win seven games a year ago, including a start in the NCAA Regionals. 'David accepts his role so willingly and knows what I like him to do,' Knutson says.
Hawkins, Knutson says, 'could be in the mix in a lot of ways. I like him on the mound. He's got a bit of nastiness about him.'
Pedroza, a third-year student, came through the walk-on tryouts in the fall and will get his shot two years removed from an outstanding high school career. Hughes is a command pitcher who Knutson says excels and throwing a breaking ball for a strike.
The Huskies' starting catching situation is pretty easy to figure as preseason All-American Aaron Hathaway returns for his third season as a starter. Originally known for outstanding defense, he emerged last year as the Huskies' No. 3 hitter and batted .350.
'Aaron has got to be the best catch-and-throw guy in our conference,' Knutson says, 'and our depth behind him is very good.'
Senior Ben Johnson has spent the last three seasons as a backup catcher and part-time starter. Knutson would be more than satisfied with him in that role this year, but Johnson also emerged from the fall as the starter in left field. While he'll hold on to the catching gear, his time as the No. 2 man behind the plate may come down to the play of freshman slugger Matt Lane.
'Matt is a big, strong, left-handed hitting catcher,' Knutson explains. 'He'll have his chance to be the No. 2. He had a very good fall.'
Also backing up behind the plate is true freshman Ty Kuehl.
Last year, the Huskies broke the school record for fielding percentage with a .978 mark, good for No. 3 in the nation. There's little reason to think that will change much this year as three-quarters of the starting infield returns.
Junior Kyle Larsen has made only two errors in two seasons as the starting first baseman. After a strong start at the plate last year, the six-foot-five slugger struggled at the bat the last half of the year. How he responds at the plate could be a key for the '04 Dawgs.
'Kyle will be the first to tell you that he was a little down last year,' says Knutson, 'but we anticipate he'll be back on track after a strong summer and fall. He's the key to our defense. He makes it hard for us to throw a ball away.'
Senior Greg Isaacson returns for his third year as a starting second baseman. Always solid in the field, he made a jump at the plate last year, hitting .322 with nine home runs.
'Nothing Greg does surprises me,' says Knutson. 'He has a great attitude and is the role model for our program.'
Senior John Otness is another third-year starter at third base, where he returns this year. 'John is a returning senior captain who has always been a very productive player for us. We expect a big year out of him,' Knutson says.
The one new starter in the infield isn't really new. Last year, the coaches converted then-freshman Brent Lillibridge to center field as his play forced them to find a place for him after starter Tila Reynolds unexpectly returned for his senior year. All Lillibridge did was bat .388 with 13 home runs and make first-team All-Pac-10 and Freshman All-America before spending the summer as a starter on the U.S. National Team.
'It's important to remember that this isn't a center fielder being converted to shortstop,' Knutson explains. 'It's the other way around. He's a really talented player and it'll be fun to see him out there at shortstop every day.'
The infield depth is also strong. While there haven't been many chances to break into the starting lineup the last couple of years, Knutson's confident that whenever their time comes, his younger infielders will perform.
Redshirt freshman Matt Tucker and sophomore Josh Showers back up at second base while Brian Bauer is the No. 2 player at shortstop. At third base, hard-hitting freshman Tyler Mach saw action in the fall due to an injury to Otness and showed that he can hold his own there if needed.
Additionally, junior Nick Batkoski, who has moved to the outfield, could return at third or short if needed.
The only returner with any experience in the outfield is junior Taylor Johnson, the starter in right most of the last two seasons. The Huskies lost, essentially, three other regular outfielders with the move of Lillibridge and with Chad Boudon and Mike Wagner moving on to pro ball.
Boudon belted 22 homers last year to set a UW single-season record, while Wagner hit 15. While defense is always important, Knutson is tasked with trying to replace some of that power when he restructures his outfield this year.
That need meant that the Huskies spent the fall trying several veterans in new spots and at the end of it, Taylor Johnson was joined by three converted players to make up the team's top four outfielders.
Taylor Johnson ended the fall playing center with Ben Johnson (the No. 2 catcher the last three years) in left and former third baseman Nick Batkoski in right. Former catcher Zach Clem was the DH much of the time, but also worked out in the two corner spots.
'I think Taylor is a key guy,' Knutson says. 'He's a physical guy and we expect him to produce. He could hit anywhere in the lineup thanks to his good power and high on-base percentage.'
'Batkoski's been a productive hitter when he's gotten in there,' Knutson continues, 'and Ben had a very good fall. Clem was one of our best hitters in the fall. Those four guys will get the first shot.'
Younger players fill out the depth in the outfield and all could push the veterans for time. Knutson has three center-field types in sophomores Devin Warner and Nick Burnham and freshman Nick Jiles and a corner outfielder in freshman Brett Kilborn.
Like every season, there are question marks going in. The Huskies, however, think they have all the answers. All that's left is to get out on the field and find out.
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