Churchill: Washington Huskies Baseball Legit
(SEATTLE, WA) — The Washington Huskies baseball team — a program that hasn’t been relevant since right-hander Tim Lincecum was selected in the first-round of the 2006 Draft — is sitting atop the Pac-12 standings and appears to be a legitimate threat in one of the top conferences in the country.
Two weeks ago, The Huskies swept Arizona in their conference home opener after winning 2 of 3 on the road at Arizona State. Last weekend, the Diamond Dawgs swept USC in Los Angeles, resulting in a national ranking for the first time in eight years. Still, questions remained. Could the Huskies hang with some of the very best the Pac-12 has to offer?
After a weekend stanza at home versus No. 9 Oregon, the answer to that question is a resounding ‘YES.’
The visiting Ducks took the series opener Friday 10-3, but Washington earned a 1-0 victory Saturday and won the series in a doozy Sunday. Oregon starter Jeff Gold, who throws tons of quality off-speed pitches, entered the game 7-0 with an ERA just over two and had a no-hitter through five innings Sunday. At that point, the Ducks had scraped across two runs against Huskies right-hander Jeff Brigham.
Washington tied the game after two outs in the sixth, rallying behind Braden Bishop, Robert Pehl and Brian Wolfe. Brigham was lifted after six and left-hander Will Ballowe held Oregon scoreless for 2 2/3 innings. Troy Rallings took over, sailing through his first inning. The right-hander then surrendered two runs in the top of the 10th. But the game wasn’t over, despite one of the country’s best closers, Ducks right-hander Jake Reed, taking the ball in the bottom of the inning to close out the game.
Andrew Ely, a two-time conference player of the week, came through with a bases-clearing double in walk-off fashion for a 5-4 win. It wasn’t just a win, however. It was a message. A message to the rest of the conference that the Huskies were for real.
I’d make the argument that the Huskies may be but the fifth or sixth most talented roster in the conference, at best. If I had to gamble, I’d wager one of the two Oregon schools or UCLA ultimately win the conference. In the end, Washington may be the fourth or fifth best team in the Pac-12. Right now, though, they’re playing sound baseball behind good pitching and solid defense and are getting on base and coming up with big hits when they need them. In other words, they’re the Pac-12’s version of the two-time defending American League West champion Oakland Athletics — but with significantly nicer uniforms and a better ballpark, of course.
This Washington team is not without some very intriguing talent, however, as there are some 2014 draft prospects suiting up and performing every week, and the upper classmen are legitimate senior talents that are likely to go later in the draft come June.
The juniors that are highest on the radar of big-league scouts are Brigham and Pehl. Brigham pitched well at 90-93 mph Sunday, but touched 98 once and 94 a handful of times. He commands the pitch well in the low-90s and had a tendency to land up in the zone when over 93. His 78-82 mph slider is below average but flashed above-average and his occasional changeup is a bit hard at 87-88 and lacks sink or fade.
Brigham offers high-end athleticism and generally repeated a fluid, easy delivery, which bodes well for his future in pro ball. When he stays down in the zone, the fastball is heavy and induces ground balls at a high rate. The lack of a polished breaking balls hinders his ability to miss bats, but he’s a battler and appears to have the good breaking ball in his arsenal, it’s simply behind in its development.
The 6-foot, 185-pound Federal Way native has a shot at to be selected early on Day 2.
Pehl offers a consistent, line drive swing and average raw power. He reminds some of former big-league infielder Jeff Cirillo in that manner, but he’s also a player without a clear position on the field, clouding his value as a prospect. There’s too much bat-to-ball ability for him to go undrafted, though, even if it’s late on Day 2 or early on Day 3.
Oregon’s Reed sat 93-95 from a low three-quarter arm slot and mixed in a mid-80s slider. His command was spotty Sunday, but the 6-foot-2, 190 pounder has been dominant all season, punching out a batter per inning and often hitting 97 with a lively fastball.
The Huskies, 10-2 in the Pac-12 and 22-6-1 overall, showed discipline, patience and perseverance Sunday, something they have displayed all season. This weekend, however, they did it against one of the country’s best teams.
It’s time to start taking them seriously.
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