2005 Husky Baseball Season Preview
Dec. 21, 2004
In some ways, the 2005 Washington baseball team is entering uncharted territory as it heads into the upcoming season. In other ways, the dawn of the new campaign raises memories from not so many years before.
Washington takes the field this spring with an experienced team that has earned berths in each of the last three NCAA tournaments, a string of postseason success unprecedented in Diamond Dawgs history.
In 1998, the UW team was looking for only a second straight appearance, but had won the previous season's Pac-10 championship and played for the title the year before that. That '98 squad included experience all over the diamond and boasted a seasoned pitching staff.
The 2005 team has its similarities. Starters return at six spots in the batting order. Even the players expected to step into starting spots for the first time this year have a fair amount of previous experience. Every pitcher that started a game in 2004 returns for '05.
Last year, the Huskies had enough to finish second in the powerful Pac-10 Conference, only one game short of the title. This year, the components appear to be in place to take yet another step forward. And 13th-year head coach Ken Knutson hopes that this time, the Huskies have a little more going for them than those championship teams from seven and eight years ago.
'On paper, this team reminds me a lot of the 1997 and 1998 teams -- those ballclubs that won back-to-back Pac-10 championships,' Knutson says. 'We have special players in our program like we did back then. But I think the thing that gives us the edge is that I think we're better on the mound than those teams.'
While the '98 club did win the Pac-10 crown, it couldn't make it past the NCAA regionals. The last three seasons, 2002 through 2004, Washington has played in the regional championship round, but the Dawgs have been unable to break through to the super regionals. Could 2005 be the year?
'We're locked and loaded,' Knuson says. 'It's a really good team that's worked hard and done all the right things. Now we just need to stay healthy and get the magic going. This is a special team that could contend for all the big prizes if the ingredients comes together. It'll be our job as coaches to make sure things are directed in the right ways.'
Last year, the Huskies finished the season with a starting rotation consisting of two freshmen and a sophomore. Additionally, two other freshmen, another sophomore and a junior took occassional turns as starters. Every one of those pitchers return in 2005, making Knutson's job, as both head coach and pitching coach, a pretty easy one.
'We're just going to go with what we finished with,' Knutson explains. 'Everybody played well enough during the fall to hold onto their spots. They pitched so well last year, especially at the end of the season. So, it's Lincecum, Parker and Kasser.'
Lincecum was named the Pac-10's Pitcher of the Year and Freshman of the Year after posting a 10-3 record and striking out a school-record 161 batters, the third highest total in the nation last year. He'll return to his role as the ace of the staff in '05.
'Tim's going to be a year older and that much more mature,' Knutson says. 'He pitched great last year, but I think he'd tell you that as good as he was, he had some things he felt he could improve. I know he wants to cut down his walks and get deeper into games. He wants to establish himself as our ace and the leader of our staff.'
Parker wasn't that far behind his classmate Lincecum in 2005 and after an outstanding summer season, which he capped with a five-hit shutout in the NBC World Series championship game, he's continued his progression as well.
'Like Tim, Kyle's problem last year at times was that he'd have streaks of wildness, ' Knutson says. 'But he's just really good. His stuff is nasty. He competes really well and he's very mature for his age. I think with a full season in the rotation and if he can out those few inconsistent stretches, he can be a dominant pitcher. I think he'll compete with Lincecum and some others in the Pac-10 to be one of the best pitchers in the league.'
Kasser started over the course of the last 10 weeks of the season and closed his year with a big win in the NCAA Regional. He'll retain his starting spot as a junior.
'Matt gave us some really good games when he began starting last year, but it was his first year starting,' says Coach Knutson. 'The three of them are all sort of the same in that regard. They all have a solid year behind them and now let's see if they'll improve.'
Behind those three are several others that will battle for midweek starts and be on stand-by for the weekend should they be needed. Junior Keaton Everitt made 10 starts last year while sophomore Jordan Ponzoha made three. Additionally, senior lefty David Dowling, who has served as a starter during his career, is back from injury and could serve in any of a variety of roles.
'Keaton was really good early in the year,' Knutson says. 'His thing is about his command because his stuff is really good. We have an unusual schedule this year where we have six games in four days at one point and a lot of midweek games. For our overall team success, we have to be good in that fifth and even sixth starting role. We have to have some people that can get it done there. I'm hoping Keaton can do that for us. And the weeks we don't have those extra games, I want to have him in the bullpen and be able to utilize him if he's not one of the three starters. He's going to pitch some very important innings for us.'
The same goes for Dowling and Ponzoha. 'I thought last year, one of the biggest things we were missing was Dowling,' Knutson says. 'He won seven games the year before, and last year he pitched only 22 innings. David is back and throwing the ball well.
'Ponzoha goes into that mix with David and Keaton as a long reliever that will push the starters,' Knutson continues. 'He pitched a fair amount as a freshman and we'll look for him to improve. He's maturing physically.'
One of the rare positions of inexperience for Washington is at closer as former All-American Will Fenton has moved on to professional baseball. Sophomore fireballer Richie Lentz, a starter in eight games last year and a reliever in 12 others, is expected to take over as closer.
'Lentz was a closer over the summer,' Knutson says. 'He's got the stuff and the mentality. It'll be new for him at this level, but I think he's perfectly suited for it. We'll have a power arm coming in at the back end of games.'
Senior Josh Conover, who converted to a side-armer midway through last season, is the Huskies' most experienced reliever aside from Dowling. A part-time starter in the past, Knutson figures on using Conover out of the bullpen in 2004. Another senior could also make himself known as a reliever as fourth-year starting right fielder Taylor Johnson will be given a shot as a reliever while still holding on to his spot in the batting order.
'Conover is now throwing exclusively sidearm and he's throwing hard,' Knutson says. 'It's just a matter of having success like he did at the end of last season. If he can build on that, he can really help our bullpen. I see him giving right-handed hitters fits.
'We're trying Taylor out of the bullpen,' Knutson continues. 'He's always had that power arm. He pitched during the fall and had some success. He's an option for us as a left-handed power arm. It's 90-plus miles per hour and he throws it easy.'
How much Johnson will be needed will likely depend on the progress of a big group of youngsters. Southpaws Emmanuel Pedroza and Nick Hagadone and righties Matt Hague and Brandon McKerney all got a lot of work during the fall and will push for innings in the early-going. Addtionally, righties Benji Brown and Andrew Powell could see some bullpen action while big southpaw Kyle Carson and right-hander Casey Bollinger will continue their progress after being limited during the fall due to injuries.
If there's a question mark for the 2005 Diamond Dawgs, it's at catcher. That's not so much a reflection on the abilities of the four players that will play there this year, but more on the fact between them, those four have only started one game behind the plate in a Washington uniform.
Sophomore Matt Lane started 36 games last year at designated hitter, but only one game behind the plate with junior Aaron Hathaway and senior Ben Johnson (both were drafted after the 2004 season) ahead of him on the depth chart. Lane has the inside track on the starting job as the spring arrives.
'Lane's the big offensive guy for us,' Knutson says. 'He hit over .300 as a freshman and he has tremendous offensive ability. He's worked hard on his catching and his defensive skills are going to be good. He gives us left-handed power, but the key thing will be how he works with the pitching staff and I'm encouraged by his fall.'
Three newcomers comprise the rest of the catching corps. Most experienced of the three is junior college transfer D.J. Neyens, who enters the spring in the No. 2 spot. Freshmen Joey Dunn and Stewart Davis are also expected to vie for playing time.
While technically only one full-time starting infielder returns from last season, there won't be a shortage of familiar faces manning those four spots in 2005.
Senior Kyle Larsen, who has started at first base for three seasons, makes a somewhat unexpected return for his fourth season. Junior Brent Lillibridge has spent most of the last two seasons in center field, but did start 32 games at shortstop last season. Nick Batkoski, who has started 67 games during his UW career, including 28 at short last season, takes over at third base on a full-time basis. And, as the team enters spring, senior Mike Rundle, a transfer from Gonzaga, will start at second base.
'Larsen really solidifies our defense,' says Knutson. 'He's been so good at first base during his career and he's also been really productive and one of our best players every year. We're really excited about having him back.'
Sophomore Curt Rindal, who redshirted last season due to injury, provides backup at first base and also emerged during the fall as the top pick at designated hitter.
'At second base, Rundle and came in and played very well defensively in the fall,' Knutson says. 'He's shown that he can be a good offensive player. When we were contacted by him about his interest in transferring, someone described him as a Lillibridge-type of player. He's a little guy but he's got a lot of bounce in his body. He has the ability to drive the ball. He's probably not going to hit a ton of home runs, but that's not what we want him to do.'
Brent Lillibridge enters his junior year as a two-time All-Pac-10 first-teamer with a .347 batting average.
'Brent's an All-American type player who's going to be a high draft pick,' Knutson says. 'We anticipate him playing shortstop every day for the entire season. There's no reason to believe that we'll move him to the outfield. He hasn't taken any reps there and as long as he's healthy, he'll be out there at shortstop every day. We expect him to be an All-American. He'll compete for conference player of the year and he'll get a lot of attention from professional baseball. I think he's the best leadoff hitter in the country. He's a dangerous player and he's the guy that everybody gameplans for when they play us.'
Batkoski has filled in at third, short, DH and in the outfield during his first three seasons, and has cracked the lineup as an everyday starter down the stretch of the last two years. This year, for the first time in his career, he'll be a starter from opening day, taking over at third base.
'He's at his true position after playing shortstop last year when we made a move to get his bat in the lineup,' Knutson says. 'He's been a really good hitter when he's gotten the chance. Plus, he's very sure-handed. He profiles as a third baseman and he'll do really well there. He should hit in the middle of the lineup'
Three freshmen will compete for playing time behind Batkoski. Matt Stevens wields a powerful bat that could get him in the lineup at third, first, outfield or DH. Matt Hague figures to see significant action as a reliever, but also plays third base. And Andy Lentz, who can play several infield spots and any position in the outfield, will also push for at bats.
'I think Andy has a chance to play a number of positions for us,' says Knutson, 'but then again he may settle in somewhere at some point. Right now though, we're open and we just want to get him on the field. We think he's going to contribute as a freshman. He's going to be in the mix early on.
The Huskies return all three starting outfielders from last season - left fielder Zach Clem, center fielder Brent Lillibridge and right fielder Taylor Johnson - but with Lillibridge back at shortstop, one position was open going into the fall. Junior Nick Burnham won that job and will begin the year as the UW's starting center fielder.
Clem, who had only three at bats as a freshman catcher/third baseman in 2003, hit .336 with 13 home runs last year and earned first-team All-Pac-10. He'll start in left field.
'Zach was so consistent all last year,' Knutson says. 'His numbers were really steady from day one. Now, we know he's a left fielder. He's played out there and he's played well. He's really sort of an underrated defender. He was an All-Pac-10 left fielder, so that means he can hit. He's going to hit third, fourth or fifth in the lineup.'
Johnson enters his senior year with 115 career starts, mostly in right field. As noted earlier, he may also make some appearances on the mound as a senior.
'Taylor's made big improvements in maturity, confidence and consistency at the plate,' Knutson says. 'I think his run late last year really helped him. One thing about Taylor is that he can steal a base, he can beat you with his glove, he can hit the ball out of the park, he can get a drag bunt -- he's just an athlete that can beat you a lot of ways.
'The compeition going into the fall was in center field and Burnham just went out and won the job,' Knutson continues. 'Nick's a guy that just knows how to play and he's very popular with his teammates because he's a guy that just does things the right way. He swung the bat well this fall, and as an outfielder that's critical. He defends well. He throws and runs well and he knows how to do all of it. He's really hungry to play.'
Sophomore Nick Jiles will continue to challenge for time in center field along with freshman Michael Burgher while Cory Rickard, a junior college transfer with a very successful pedigree, backs up all three spots.
Knutson knows that, entering his 13th season as head coach, he has as good a team as he's ever had. The 2005 UW team is experienced, talented and deep.
'One thing that gives us an edge over some of our earlier teams is the number of quality seniors that are back,' Knutson says. 'We have experienced guys that have played a lot. It's hard for me to believe that there are too many teams in the country that have a situation like we do. Even our less experienced guys are more experienced than usual - guys like Burnham and Lane.
'The league's going to be really nasty,' Knutson concludes. 'Everyone is good. It's going to be fun and it's going to be competitive, but I really like our club and I really like working with them day to day.'
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