Q & A With Coach Knutson -- Season Preview Part 2
Jan. 6, 2005
Coach Ken Knutson recently sat down once again with gohuskies.com to preview the upcoming 2005 Husky baseball season. Earlier, the Husky skipper ran through the UW pitching staff. In this issue, he talks about the batting order.
Since the previous Q & A, the Huskies received news that the team has been ranked No. 8 in Baseball America's preseason top-25 ranking. That's the highest that the Dawgs have ever been ranked, in the preseason or otherwise.
So, now, Coach K goes through the UW's team position by position, beginning behind the plate:
gohuskies.com: Obviously, one of the big questions for the team this year is how to replace three-year starting catcher Aaron Hathaway, seeing as you're not very experienced in that position. Tell us about your catchers.
Ken Knutson: Matt Lane's the big offensive guy for us. 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.
Right now, backing him up is D.J. Neyens. He showed good, solid defensive skills. We feel like he can hit. He needs to get off to a good start. He's had a lot of experience with a good junior college team.
Joey Dunn had an injury in the fall and didn't have a chance to scrimmage. When he did play, he was effective. He has a knack for getting hits and getting on base. Stewart Davis is a left-handed hitter that reminds me a lot of Lane. He's learning how to catch and he's probably still and offensive player first and foremost. He's going to be in the mix.
gohuskies.com: At first base, you get Kyle Larsen back, which is a bit of a surprise as most figured he'd be a pro right now. That must be nice for you.
KK: Larsen really solidifies our defense. 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.
Backing him up is Curt Rindal. He has the first shot at DH this year. We've always felt that he's potentially one of our big power guys. He's strong, he's big and he can hit the ball out of the park.
gohuskies.com: Who's going to replace Greg Isaacson at second base?
KK: At second base, Mike Rundle tranferred from Gonzaga and came in and played very well defensively in the fall. 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.
Backing him up would be Josh Showers, who also plays third base. He's been injured in the past, but this fall he got an opportunity to swing the bat. Ryan Anderson is also working out at both second and short. He was a really good high school player and we think he has the ability to play either position. We look for him to get some playing time as a freshman.
gohuskies.com: Brent Lillibridge is back at shortstop for his junior year. Tell us about him and his backup, his younger brother.
KK: He's an All-American type player who's going to be a high draft pick. 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.
Kiel Lillibridge is probably a shortstop first. He played well this fall defensively. His skills are very good. The thing he needs to work on is getting strong physically and he's been getting after it in the weight room. He'll be backing up his brother.
gohuskies.com: John Otness started the the last four years at third base before graduating. You must consider yourself fortunate to have an experienced guy in senior Nick Batkoski to take over. Tell us about him and the rest of your infielders.
KK: Nick is at his true position after playing shortstop last year when we made a move to get his bat in the lineup. 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. The moves last year that got us going were the young pitchers coming along and Batkoski getting in the lineup every day. This year, he goes into the season with the job. He's earned it with three years of really good production. And there are days when you might argue he's our best defensive player.
We're backing him up with Matt Stevens. He's worked very hard defensively. He's a good athlete that we can play him all over the field. We feel with the recruiting class that's coming in next year and how he'll profile offensively, playing him at third base is one of the keys to our future. He gives us a big, athletic guy at third base and this is a guy that played shortstop and center field in high school. We think he'll push for playing time as a freshman not only at third base, but as the DH and in the outfield or at first base. He gives us flexibility.
Matt Hague played third base during the fall. I see him as a two-way player, but primarily his chance to compete right away this year will be on the mound because of the experience we have in the field.
Andy Lentz is playing all over the place. He can play second base, third base and all three outfield spots. He's a left-handed hitter that's going to be a really good offensive player. I think he's got a chance to play a number of positions for us, 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.
gohuskies.com: Moving onto the outfield, you have two returning starters in left and right, but you need to find a center fielder with Lillibridge back at shortstop. Tell us about the situation out there.
KK: Zach Clem and Taylor Johnson have definitely earned the right to go out there in left and right field. They've been very productive. Zach was so consistent all last year. His numbers were really steady from day one. He's worked very hard in the weight room and on his speed. 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.
Taylor's made big improvements in maturity, confidence and consistency at the plate. I think his run late last year really helped him. The really interesting thing is that we've tried him on the mound. I think he's very good and has a chance to be a really good two-way player. He's a 90-mile-an-hour lefty who's athletic and can play in the outfield. We're going to give it a go and see what happens. It's all interwoven with how the other lefties do. If Dowling's healthy and Hagadone throws well and Pedroza comes on, that'll affect the necessity to use him. But, we're going to try it and see how it goes. 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 Nick Burnham just went out and won the job. Nick's a guy that just knows how to play and he's very popular with his teammates because he'a 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. He was one of our top hitters in the fall.
He'll be challenged by Nick Jiles. He didn't play that much as a freshman, but he's got very good skills offensively and defensively and can definitely be a contributor.
Michael Burgher is a natural center fielder. He's a runner and a defender. He's very aggressive. He reminds me a bit of Jamie Porter in the way he can run and cover in center. He may be our best defender in center field.
The other guy that's out there is Cory Rickard. He's going to be in the mix as a backup at all three spots. He really defends well. He brings experience and success. He got himself in the mix with how he played in the fall.
gohuskies.com: That wraps up the players. Any final thoughts as the team prepares to open the spring?
KK: I think on paper, this team reminds me a lot of the 1997 and 1998 teams -- those ballclubs that won back-to-back Pac-10 championships. 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.
The big thing is that we have to stay healthy. Like any Division I program, you can't lose any of your big arms or have three or four position players go down. I think a big key will be how we develop behind that plate. I've always believed that that's so critical to how we pitch. That's the big unknown only because we have almost no experience coming back, but I think the catchers we do have can get the job done.
Our staff should strike a lot of guys out and shouldn't give up very many hits, so if we just catch the ball well back there and make them feel good, then we can be really good.
We're locked and loaded. 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 all the ingredients comes together. It'll be our job as coaches to make things are directed in the right ways.
The other thing that gives us an edge over some of our earlier teams is the number of quality seniors that are back. 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. 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.