Washington Huskies threaten Pac-12

Chris Baker celebrates with teammates after his grand slam Sunday versus the UCLA Bruins at Husky Ballpark. (Stephen Brashear)
No, the Dawgs at Montlake did not walk up to Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott and caution the entire conference. But the university’s baseball team is a legitimate threat in the conference after winning two of three over UCLA this past weekend.

The 5-4 victory Sunday at Husky Ballpark pushed the Huskies into second place in the Pac-12, tied with California with a 9-6 and a game and a half ahead of Stanford and Oregon. The Dawgs now are 19-12 on the season and have series wins over Oregon and Arizona in addition to this weekend’s UCLA series win, plus a road series win at Arizona State just last week.

What does all of this mean? It means the Huskies cannot be ignored anymore. Washington’s RPI has jumped to 55, just two spots behind Arizona, 11 spots ahead of Stanford and 19 spots ahead of Oregon. Utah, who leads the conference at 8-4 doesn’t register until No. 123 in RPI. California, at No. 30, is tops in the conference.

The Huskies’ schedule doesn’t help their chances at a postseason berth, as currently the SOS sits at 163 and the non-conference RPI, per D1Baseball.com, is at 113. But they are 10-5 versus the D1Baseball Top 50 and have St. Mary’s coming up this weekend — the Gaels are ranked No. 35 in RPI — and visits to Berkely to play Cal, which currently ranks No. 17 in the D1 Top 25, give the Huskies a shot to improve their peripherals that ultimately matter so much come selection time.

Washington is among the ‘First Four Out’ in Baseball America’s projection from April 13. The series win gets them a bit closer, if not into such a projection. The Huskies’ second half will dictate, all the way through their series at hoke versus Stanford in May and at Utah to finish the schedule.

First-Half Review
Friday’s 1-0 loss to UCLA was a well-pitched game by both sides as the starters each went the distance, including UW’s Noah Bremer. Bremer, a sophomore who will jump onto scouts’ radars at the conclusion of this season as he becomes draft-eligible for 2017, again showed an 88-91 mph fastball, touching 92, to go with what was a plus curveball in this one. It’s his best pitch and often is at least average, earning at 50 or better each time I’ve seen him in 2016.

Washington’s lineup lost draftees Austin Rei (Red Sox) and Braden Bishop (Mariners) to the draft last June, but junior Josh Cushing and sophomore backstop Joey Morgan have picked up the slack. They haven’t done it alone, however, as statistically there’s not a weak spot in the order. Center fielder Jack Meggs — who, by the way, is underrated defensively — boasts a .391 OBP through Sunday and Cushing, Morgan, 1B/DH John Naff, JC transfer and right fielder MJ Hubbs, all have on-base marks above .377 in more than 100 plate appearances. Slugger Gage Matuszak sits at .302/.380/.556 in71 PAs. Freshman A.J. Graffanino is batting .277/.373/.385 as the strong-side platoon at shortstop and Chris Baker, the owner of a .354 OBP, may the club’s unsung hero starting games at second base, third base and shortstop and hitting a huge grand slam Sunday to get Washington a lead they’d protect.

Kyle London (.481 OBP in 85 PA) and KJ Brady (.389 OBP in 62 PA) also warrant votes in the unsung hero category.

If the Huskies have a significant weakness it’s the rotation, where Saturday starter and freshman Joe DeMers has been inconsistent and their other starters has been a mix of Greg Minier, Will Ballowe, Channing Nesbitt, Spencer Jones, Ryan Schmitten and Alex Nesbitt. With Minier and Ballowe can be uber-valuable in relief, so another reliable starter or two would strengthen the rotation as well as the relief corps. Troy Rallings, however, has been terrific as the closer, yielding just four earned runs in 41 1/3 innings. He’s compiled three wins and nine saves already and a 34-7 K/BB ratio. Opponents are batting just .132 off the right-hander, who probably should be starting games.

In addition to the four-game set versus St. Mary’s this coming weekend (doubleheader Saturday), and conference series at California, USC and Utah, and versus Washington State and Stanford at home, the Huskies play Seattle University this Tuesday at Bannerwood Park in Bellevue as well as home versus Northern Colorado May 16. There also is an extra game versus Washington State at Yakima May 24 in between the Stanford and Utah series matchups.

Scouting Notes
DeMers throws hard, often sitting 90-94 mph and touching as high as 96, but his command and control are spotty and he hasn’t shown he can command a solid-average slurvy breaking balls. He throws from a true three-quarters slot but his rock-and-fire delivery produces a firm, two-piece (backward, then toward plate in two motions) arm path that may be contributing to his command inconsistencies. His arm slot doesn’t allow for him to create much plane and it doesn’t help that he’s just 6-feet tall, but he’s sturdy, not afraid to throw inside and the ball explodes out of his hand. If this were DeMers’ draft year, scouts likely would project him as a two-pitch reliever, but he’s just a freshman and Huskies’ pitching coach Jason Kelly has a terrific track record…

Morgan isn’t just a good power hitter, his strike zone judgment is above-average and the right-handed batter has shown he can hit for extra-bases to center and right field. His pitch recognition is about where it should be at this stage, probably ahead of schedule. The bat speed is well above-average and there appear to be few, if any, wasted movements and mechanical flaws in the swing. He creates good leverage and he finishes his swing well after contact with a clean path to the ball. I haven’t seen him swing through many fastballs — he’s whiffed 21 times in 109 plate appearances, generally on offspeed stuff out of the zone. He does seem to deal with such offerings well, laying off his share of chase pitches from right-handed pitchers. Defensively he’s fringe-average technically but the footwork is clean and his arm is above-average with well above-average accuracy. He’s adept at using the Husky Ballpark infield to his advantage, making sure he doesn’t soar throws into center field…

Cushing
Cushing can hit but the past week or two hasn’t looked right. He’s batting .309/.387/.543 with a team-leading five home runs, but he’s been swinging through fastballs, suggesting perhaps a leg injury is bothering him more than he’s willing to admit. If he gets right again, the Huskies’ lineup is very solid and balanced and can compete with any in the conference.

Signing Off
The Huskies baseball program has made the postseason just nine times — eight since 1992 and three times in the 2000s under Ken Knutsen and in 2014 under current head coach Lindsey Meggs. While Meggs is no different than your typical college coach in many ways — he bunts a runner to second, sometimes even in the first inning, it’s just what college coaches do a lot these days — he’s certainly a success in turning the program around from when he arrived.

When Knutsen left the Huskies had finished .500 or worse in the conference six straight years and finished on the top half just once in that time frame. Meggs’ first three years resulted in a 30-54 conference tally and a bottom-third finish each year. Since then, the Huskies have gone 15-15, 21-9 and 14-16 in conference and at 10-6 now are on their way to another contending season, the second in the last three seasons.

The future looks bright, too, as nearly the entire roster returns with the lone key exceptions being Rallings and Ballowe. Meggs’ 2015 class was highly rated. Already on the books as incoming freshman for next year — 2016-17 — include shortstop Nick Roberts from Central Kitsap High School among 17 commits and a pair of walk-ons thus far.

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Jason A. Churchill

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