WALLA WALLA, Wash. - With speed to burn on the basepaths and in the field, the Whitman College baseball team hopes to out-hustle its opponents this spring under the direction of second-year coach Casey Powell.
Forced into indoor workouts by a recent onslaught of heavy snow and cold temperatures, Whitman looks forward to next week's season-opening trip to the Phoenix area for the D-III Arizona Desert Classic. The Missionaries play five games in four days, dirtying their spikes for the first time on Thursday, Feb. 12, against Nebraska's Hastings College. Chapman University, one of two foes slated for Feb. 13, is the defending national champ.
A stockpile of speed characterizes Whitman's roster this spring, which includes several freshmen (Powell's first recruiting class) but nary a senior.
Junior center fielder Sean Kinney (Seattle, Wash. / Blanchet HS) captains the offense and boasts the most experienced lumber at the top of the batting order. "Sean brings a lot to the table," Powell says. "I think he really got snubbed last year in the all-conference selections."
Playing a flawless outfield (no errors in 97 chances) last spring, Kinney also notched stellar numbers at the plate, batting .328 with nine doubles and 10 stolen bases. Despite hitting in the leadoff spot, he finished second on the team in RBI with 19. Two years ago as a freshman, Kinney earned Northwest Conference honorable mention recognition, hitting .337 with nine doubles, 10 steals and 35 runs scored.
Kinney's likely outfield mates this spring are two more speedsters, junior Andrew Schultz (Bellevue, Wash. / Blanchet HS) and sophomore Cole Smead (Shoreline, Wash. / Cactus Shadow HS).
Schultz helped anchor the outfield as a sophomore, leading the team with 107 putouts and adding five assists. Smead, who started nine games in his first year, will see plenty of work in left field this season. "With Schultz and Kinney, and a combination of Smead and maybe Ben Hunter (Phoenix, Ariz. / North HS), we should have one of the fastest outfields in the conference," Powell says.
Hunter is one of many first-year players who could assume an immediate role. Two others are Simon Pollack (Bainbridge Island, Wash. / Bainbridge HS) and Derek Fletcher (Los Altos, Calif. / Los Altos HS). "Simon is probably our fastest player on the team," Powell says. "And Fletcher may come off the bench and play some infield. He could be an impact player."
For now, Pollack looks to have his mitts on the job at first base, while sophomore all-conference returnee Drew Pearsall (Phoenix, Ariz. / Brophy College Prep) anchors the hot corner at third base. As a freshman last spring, Pearsall bounced among a number of positions while batting .311 (.333 in NWC play) and swiping eight bases. "Drew is not the fastest guy on the team, but he is a smart base-runner," Powell says. "They play hardball all year long in Phoenix, and it shows. He has an idea about the game."
With the departure of Blake Fisher and Danny Richards to graduation, the middle infield will see new faces for the first time in years. Shortstop Brandon Nickerson (Port Orchard, Wash. / South Kitsap HS) and J.D. Fischer (Boise, Idaho / Capital HS) at second base, both sophomores, appear to be the double-play combination for this year's squad. "These guys will really benefit from last year's experience" Powell says. "The toughest part of the game for the young players is adjusting to all the off-speed pitches in college. I think this year we have some hitters ready to make that leap as sophomores."
With only 17 players on the active roster for the season-opening tournament, Powell hopes to keep the Missionaries far away from the injury bug. "We don't have much depth in terms of numbers," he says. "We need to be careful with our pitchers, and keep the entire team healthy and in shape."
One position Powell knows requires conditioning is catcher. Junior Spencer Fox (Seattle / Blanchet HS), who figures to see most of the backstop duties, has been a constant presence in the Sherwood Fitness Center, sculpting his game, and his frame, for the grind that comes with catching. Fox led the team in bruises last year, getting nicked by pitches six times, and posting a team-high .379 on-base percentage, to go along with a .272 batting average.
Sophomore Matt Jungmann (Walla Walla, Wash. / Walla Walla HS), ticketed to relieve Fox behind the plate at times, will also serve as Whitman's primary weapon out of the bullpen. Jungmann, who pitched in ten games, starting four, in his inaugural campaign, looks to improve on his command as a sophomore.
"Matt's going to be our ace in the hole," Powell says. "More often than not, he will be the first guy up, and we will use his bat in the lineup, too." In only 22 at-bats last season, Jungmann posted a .273 batting average, collecting six RBI on his six hits, which included both a double and a triple. "He is probably our biggest power threat."
If Jungmann is the first option out of the pen, it appears junior co-captain Pat Thomas (Spokane, Wash. / St. George HS) will be the No. 1 starter for the Missionaries. A mid-year transfer from Gonzaga University as a freshman, Thomas started playing baseball for Whitman last spring as a sophomore - pitching 27 innings in 14 games, two as a starter. "Pat will see the bulk of the load for us this year," Powell says. "He's a big, strong kid, and he knows how to pitch."
Other potential starters for Whitman include junior Steve Johnson (Seattle / Lakeside School), sophomore Adam Maldonado (San Francisco, Calif. / Lick-Wilmerding HS), and sophomore Oliver Stiefel (Portland, Ore. / Lincoln HS). First-year players Pat Johnston (Olympia, Wash. / Capital HS) and Thomas Kost (Marshall, Minn. / Marshall HS) could also be forces on the hill.
With relatively few options, Powell plans to tinker with the rotation early in the season. "Aside from Thomas, it is still relatively up in the air," he says. "Steve Johnson has got a lot of bulldog in him, and he shows promise if he can keep the ball in the strike zone. And Pat Johnston is a good kid - he knows how to handle himself."
Powell also ponders the thought of using a pair of position players on the mound. "We have put both Andrew Schultz and Derek Fletcher up there in practice," he says. "We just have to see what kinds of situations arise. I think Stiefel saw he could fill a need and made the transition from the outfield during the offseason. And Kost is a player who could eat up some innings."
Whitman recently lost one of its top players in Jordan Takaki (Honolulu, Hawaii / Punahou School), when the junior took a leave of absence from school due to a family emergency. Takaki was slotted to be the team's closer out of the bullpen, as well as a primary option in right field and as a staple in the middle part of the batting order.
Last spring in his first baseball season at Whitman, Takaki belted six of his 15 hits for extra bases, finishing with 10 RBI and a home run. "Jordan has without question the strongest arm on the team," Powell says. "We will miss his presence throughout the line-up, but hopefully we can get him back next year."
The Missionaries could be bolstered by an early season addition of freshman Ian Warner (Woodinville, Wash. / Woodinville HS). Warner, currently playing on the men's basketball team, plans to join the baseball squad in a few weeks as the hoops season concludes. "Ian could be a valuable commodity for us in the infield," Powell says. "He might be a bit rusty at the plate, but he has a strong arm, and could add nice depth at third or second base."
In its home opener at Borleske Stadium, slated for Saturday, Feb. 21, Whitman hosts Central Washington University. The Missionaries open the NWC season on the road in Portland, Ore., playing Lewis & Clark College in a three-game set on Saturday and Sunday, March 6-7. Whitman returns home the following weekend to battle perennial conference powerhouse George Fox University in a two-day triple-header.
Jay Babbitt, Whitman Sports Information
509 529-4235; firstname.lastname@example.org
Dave Holden, Whitman Sports Information
509 527-5902; email@example.com