WALLA WALLA, Wash. – Anchored by a core of five senior starters, the Whitman College men’s baseball team and third-year coach Casey Powell are poised for success this spring.
Powell’s squad kicks off its season next week at the three-day Arizona Desert Classic in Chandler, Ariz. Whitman debuts on Friday, Feb. 18, with games against Northwest Conference-rival Whitworth College and Nebraska's Hastings College. Games against three more NWC schools -- Pacific Lutheran, Puget Sound, and Pacific -- follow on Saturday and Sunday.
With strong senior leadership and a total of 23 players on the roster, up from 18 a year ago, the Missionaries are ready to compete in the talent-rich NWC, which last year produced the NCAA Div. III national champion in George Fox University.
Two-time All-NWC selection Sean Kinney is a good bet to ignite the Whitman bats again this spring. Kinney, en route to first-team all-conference honors a year ago, led the team in runs scored (32), hits (57), average (.396), triples (2), slugging percentage (.493), walks (24), steals (6) and on-base percentage (.488).
Kinney, a senior and four-year starter, will play centerfield and bat lead-off. “Sean has a good eye at the plate and has earned the respect of everyone in the conference,” Powell says. “He has great athletic ability and even greater baseball ability. He and Andrew Schultz are two of the best outfield defenders in the conference.”
Shultz, a lanky 6-foot-5, and Kinney have been teammates since the two were freshmen at Seattle’s Blanchet High School eight years ago. Whitman’s rightfielder last season, Shultz earned All-NWC Honorable Mention recognition. He hit .316 and led the team in doubles with 11.
“Shultz is one of the fastest guys on the team,” Powell says. “He has improved every year, and we’ll be leaning on him to produce in the middle of the order this year. He might be the best outfield defender in the conference – he’s good for a diving catch practically every game.”
Rounding out Whitman’s outfield are junior Simon Pollack (Bainbridge, Wash./Bainbridge HS) , junior Cole Smead (Shoreline, Wash./Cactus Shadow HS, Cave Creek, Ariz.), and freshman Luke Marshall (Bellevue, Wash./Newport HS).
Pollack, now a junior in his second year of college ball, earned Second-Team All-NWC honors selection last spring. He led the Missionaries with 24 runs batted in and was third on the team with a .328 batting average.
“Simon is another speedy outfielder,” Powell says. “He and Kinney and Shultz allow us to play a little bigger outfield than most teams.” Pollack spent most of last season at first base, but his coach expects him to make a smooth transition into left field – his natural position. “Last year, Simon filled a need for us at first base, but he’ll do well out there in left.”
Catcher Spencer Fox, who also played at Blanchet High School with Kinney and Shultz, is back for his fourth season – third as a starter – and Powell expects the trimmed-down senior to get the majority of the reps behind the plate. “Fox did a great job of coming into this season in better shape,” Powell says. “He is one of the hardest workers on the team and will get the majority of the innings behind the dish.”
Fox had 19 RBI a year ago and led the team in the hit-by-pitch category with nine. Somewhat of a magnet in the batter’s box, Fox also led the team in sacrifices with five. He walked 11 times and his on-base percentage was more than .100 points higher than his batting average.
In the pitching department, the Missionaries will often use a three-man starting rotation, since the NWC schedule typically features three games in a two-day weekend. In that scenario, seniors Pat Thomas and Steve Johnson, along with junior Matt Jungmann, will likely see the bulk of the load.
Johnson (Seattle, Wash./Lakeside HS) is coming off his best season as a Missionary. The crafty 5-foot-7 right-hander “keeps guys off-balance,” his coach likes to say, and was rewarded with All-NWC Honorable Mention recognition.
Johnson led the team in wins and earned run average, going 5-1 on the season with a 3.61 ERA in 52.1 innings in 12 games, including five as a starter. He shut out the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford early in the year, then pitched eight innings in a 3-1 victory over Puget Sound in his season finale.
If healthy, Thomas (Spokane, Wash./St. George HS) could be a big key to Whitman’s success. In his second season with the team last spring, the righty led Whitman with 11 starts and 68 innings pitched. Unfortunately, Thomas has struggled with arm problems throughout the fall and winter. “Pat’s not 100 percent right now, but he gives us the best chance to win when he’s on the mound,” Powell says. “He’s competitive, and he wants to win every time out. He’s a good staff leader.”
Jungmann (Walla Walla, Wash./Walla Walla HS) and sophomore southpaw Pat Johnston (Olympia, Wash./Capital HS) will be Powell’s other two primary starters. “Matt can give us a lot of innings,” Powell says. “He has great leg strength and has matured a lot as a player and as a person. He’s starting to understand how to pitch.
“And Pat Johnston has a lot of resilience,” Powell says. “He can throw a lot of pitches, and he’s always in shape. When his command is on, he’s great. He can be a good reliever out of the bullpen, or we can call on him to start.” Johnston threw 42 innings as a freshman – including seven starts – and struck out 20 batters, second-most on the team.
Junior lefty Adam Maldonado (San Francisco, Calif./Lick Wilmerding HS) and sophomore Thomas Kost (Marshall, Minn. / Marshall HS) provide additional experience for the Whitman pitching staff. The two logged a combined 53.2 innings last year, and Kost had five Missionary saves. “Thomas did great making big pitches for us last year,” Powell says.
A handful of newcomers and one familiar face will round out the pitching staff. In addition to his regular catching chores, Spencer Fox at times will join a bullpen that also includes freshmen Hunter Simpson (Pullman, Wash./Pullman HS), Keali’i Forsberg (Honolulu, Hawaii/King Kekaulike HS) and Sam Thompson (Phoenix, Ariz./Phoenix Country Day School).
Fox throws a “great breaking pitch, and mechanically he’s pretty good,” Powell says. “He’s also the hardest thrower on the team.”
Forsberg gives Powell another southpaw option, while Thompson and Simpson will add depth from the right side. “Sam Thompson has big potential,” Powell says. “He will see quite a few innings. He just needs experience.”
The Missionaries have added another catcher to this year’s roster – a nice acquisition after a 2004 season that saw Fox tally all but one game behind the plate. This year freshman Mike Rathwell joins the team from Brophy Prep in Phoenix, Ariz., and should provide a solid boost at a tough position. “Mike’s a good receiver,” Powell says. “He’s like a second pitching coach right now. He’s got good feet, good hands, and he understands how to pitch to guys. He’s a very smart kid. He just needs to improve his bat speed at the plate.”
The infield may be the biggest question mark for Whitman this spring. While juniors Drew Pearsall (Phoenix, Ariz./Brophy Prep) and J.D. Fischer (Boise, Idaho/Capital HS) return to anchor the hot corners, the middle infield could be roamed by a handful of newcomers.
Fischer put together his best collegiate season a year ago, hitting .261 with nine doubles and drove in 23 runs – tied for second on the team – as the starting second baseman. This year, he makes the move to first base. “J.D. has done a great job pickin’ the ball,” Powell says of Fischer’s on-the-job training at first base. “He’s not afraid to put his nose on the ball. He also has good strength at the plate, and we’ll look to him to be more of a middle-of-the-order guy this year. He has improved as much as anyone over the past three years. He’s a team leader and always hustling.”
After making the All-NWC First Team as a freshman, Pearsall had a bit of a sophomore slump last year. In his rookie season as a utility player, he hit .311 and swiped eight bases. Last season, Pearsall’s batting average dropped slightly to .277, although he knocked in 20 runs. “Drew puts a lot of pressure on himself, but he has matured a lot,” Powell says. “He fields on the run at third base as well as anyone, and his first two steps on the bases are good. He understands more and more all the time.”
Sophomore Ian Warner, a starter on the Whitman men’s basketball team this winter, will join the baseball squad at the conclusion of the hoops season. Warner (Woodinville, Wash./Woodinville HS) found his way into a game 18 times as a freshman and should see time at a number of infield spots this season. “Ian has a quick first step and will definitely help us,” Powell says. “He’s a strong kid with a great attitude – we’re more than happy to get him out there after the hoops season.”
Freshmen Brice Crayne (Kelso, Wash./Kelso HS), a shortstop, and Kramer Phillips (Woodinville, Wash./Woodinville HS), a second baseman, will likely see the majority of the innings in the middle infield. Two more newcomers, Chad Frisk (Seattle, Wash./Shorecrest HS) and Adam Knappe (Bainbridge Island, Wash./Bainbridge Island HS), are ready as backups.
In addition to his pitching role, Hunter Simpson should also see time as a designated hitter and first baseman. “Hunter is a strong kid and has amazing bat speed,” Powell says. “He was definitely coached well in high school and will DH quite a bit. Some of our other freshmen just need to work on their strength and adapt to the speed of the college game.”
After Whitman returns from its trip to Arizona, the Missionaries pack their bags in late February for the Spring Classic, hosted by Linfield College. Whitman plays Linfield, Central Washington University, Concordia University and Western Baptist College in that tournament, and then returns home for the start of its NWC schedule on the weekend of March 5-6.
Powell’s assistant coaches this spring include Whitman graduate and former pitcher Jimmy Hill, now in his third season with primary responsibility for the pitching staff, and newcomer Ryan VanDyke, an Eastern Oregon University graduate and former catcher.
Dave Holden, Whitman Sports Information
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