WALLA WALLA, Wash. - Three quality starters, two closers and a handful of middle relievers.
"Our pitching staff this spring could be the best we've had in my time here," fifth-year Whitman College Travis Feezell says. "This certainly is the deepest staff we've had. This is the most good arms we've ever had."
Pitching will be the key if the Missionaries hope to convert last year's multitude of narrow losses into a winning season and a ticket into the upper echelon of the Northwest Conference. Despite losing 14 games last season by three or fewer runs, Whitman finished with a 14-25 record, which included an 8-16 mark in the NWC. The five teams in the bottom half of the conference all finished within three games of one another in the final standings.
The nine-school conference should be just as competitive this spring, and possibly more so. "There are no patsies," Feezell says. "Every team has a few front-line pitchers and some good position players. It isn't unfathomable that a team picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference could come through and win it all."
In a preseason poll of coaches, Willamette garnered four first-place votes and 75 points overall to top the voting. Linfield with 72 points and George Fox with 68 were a close second and third. Both schools picked up two first-place votes.
Pacific Lutheran was next in line with 50 points, just two ahead of Whitman. The Missionary vote total included one first-place vote. Rounding out the poll, in order, were Puget Sound, Pacific, Lewis & Clark, and Whitworth.
Whitman's rising stock in the eyes of opposing coaches is due in part to a maturing roster that has suffered relatively few losses to graduation in recent years. The key graduation losses last spring were right-handed pitchers Jimmy Hill and Chris Garratt, who chewed up a slew of innings while starting 21 games between them. "We'll miss both of those guys," Feezell says. "They gave us quality starts and threw some great games."
On the plus side, the Missionaries return their most effective hurler from last spring in junior Ryan Toivola. The 6-foot-3 lefty led the staff in earned run average (3.27), wins (5), innings pitched (57) and strike-outs 57. He hurled seven complete games and capped his sophomore season by earning all-conference honorable mention recognition.
"Ryan has developed into a great college pitcher," Feezell says. "He doesn't throw hard, but he knows how to pitch. If you are a student of the game, you love to watch Ryan pitch."
To replace Hill and Garratt in the starting rotation, Feezell is turning to two more juniors, Matt Brewer and Mark Hinshaw. Both are hard-throwing right-handers.
Brewer, a 6-foot-3 200-pounder, spent most of last season at shortstop, after arm problems limited his mound duty to nine early-season innings. Showing his potential, however, he fanned 14 batters in those nine innings.
"Matt's stuff is that good," Feezell says. "He can definitely average more than one strike-out per inning. He has the best stuff of any pitcher on our staff, and he has the potential to have the best stuff in the conference."
This spring's third starter is a newcomer, Mark Hinshaw, who played his first two collegiate seasons at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa. "At 6-foot-4, Mark is another big guy who is a power pitcher for the most part," Feezell says. "He's a lot like Matt in that he doesn't have to nibble around the plate. He can rely on his fastball and slider."
Brewer and Toivola are among the handful of pitchers who will see a lot of playing time at other positions. Toivola returns to first base, where he hit .321 last spring, while Brewer can play either shortstop or second base.
The middle relievers include a trio of outfielders -- senior Andy Tillo, junior David Fee and sophomore left-hander Ryan Nelson. After hitting .378 as a freshman, Nelson will be the starting centerfielder. Tillo led the team in home runs with five.
Other middle relievers include senior Nat Sampson, sophomore Jake Jensen and two freshmen, Bjorn Borkman and Kevin Daucher.
Bjorkman, who hails from the same high school (Inglemoor, Bothell, Wash.) as Toivola, has been especially impressive in early workouts, Feezell says. "Bjorn does two things very well. He competes, and he's a very polished pitcher for his age. He has a great arm angle -- a low three-quarters. He runs his fastball in and out, and he throws a change-up and slurve. He can be very tough on hitters, and we plan to use him."
Feezell feels fortunate to have two closers in his bullpen, senior Jack Brink and sophomore transfer Jeremy Bishop. Brink is another hard thrower who struck out 19 in 17 innings last season. Bishop, a graduate of Kennewick's Kamiakin High School, made the team at Gonzaga two seasons ago as a freshman but then lost interest and left the squad. Bishop also sharpened his skills in years past while playing for the Kennewick Dusters, one of the area's premier American Legion summer programs.
"When Jack throws strikes, he can be overpowering," Feezell says. "Jeremy doesn't throw as hard, but he throws three or four pitches for strikes, and he has good movement on his pitches. It's just great to have two closers to use in different situations."
Feezell also feels lucky to have a top-notch catcher available to work with his hurlers. Junior Adam Zaitz, who graduated from Inglemoor High School with Toivola, earned first-team all-conference honors last spring. He hit .290 on the season with four home runs and 25 RBI in 39 games.
"Adam is a fantastic defensive catcher," Feezell says. "He's very good with the pitchers, and he holds our defense together. He's very important to what we want to do."
Unfortunately for the Missionaries, Zaitz will miss the first week or so of the season while recovering from a broken hand, a non-baseball injury. Senior Travis Lovejoy, one of the outfielders, and junior infielder Jay Babbitt, will be subbing for Zaitz until his hand is ready.
Feezell expects senior Chris Zintel and sophomore Danny Richards to split time at third base. Zintel also can play second base, and sophomore Blake Fisher is expected to see plenty of time in the middle infield positions. Fisher hit .310 as a freshman and "continues to blossom this year," Feezell says. "He has great hands and is a polished infielder."
Kyle Carothers, Whitman's starting right-fielder, will play first base when Toivola is pitching. Carothers hit .293 last season with 19 extra-base hits and 23 RBI.
This spring's Missionaries have the potential to play strong defense, Feezell says. "We've been working hard in practice on making plays and executing on defense. This can be the best defensive team we've had since I've been here."
Stronger pitching and better defense will lessen demands on the offense, Feezell says.
"We might not have as much pop offensively as we've had the past few years, but our approach is changing in terms of trying to manufacture more runs," he says. "We might be taking more pitches, working opposing pitchers for more walks. We might be bunting runners into scoring position earlier in games. Again, if we can pitch and play defense, we won't need to score as many runs."