Linfield baseball fans would love for history to repeat itself.
Four years ago, a talented but young Wildcat team missed out on the playoffs, with the added disappointment of having to host the regional tournament anyway. Hungry and motivated, Linfield redeemed itself the next spring, winning the West Regional to advance to the NCAA Finals.
Last season, Linfield was left on the outside looking in at the McMinnville Regional. Now, it’s up to the 2013 Wildcats to see if the latter part of the aforementioned scenario materializes with a return to the postseason.
Whereas last year’s team had the potential to be great, but perhaps not the experience to follow through with a cast of predominantly first-year starters, this season Linfield has both. The entire infield returns, including first team all-NWC picks Tim Wilson (second base) and Jordan Harlow (third base) and second-teamer Kyle Chamberlain (catcher). Veteran Kenny Johnson has a full year under his belt at shortstop, while senior Michael Hopp can cover any of the three bases.
The importance of experience among its positional players is paramount, especially after a year plagued, at times, by inconsistency on the defensive side of the game.
“This year, guys aren’t learning as they go,” said sixth-year head coach Scott Brosius. “They know what the grind of the season is like so they know how to prepare and what to expect when those tough times and long weekends come.
“We talk about playing mistake-free baseball. Being really solid in all elements: throwing strikes, catching the ball defensively and putting up great at-bats throughout the game.”
Offensively, Brosius has plenty of capable and quality hitters to choose from. The challenge, therefore, lies in balancing speed and power in the lineup, as well as keeping tuned in to which players are hot, and which may be struggling at the plate.
Wilson is expected to be one of the top offensive weapons in Division III. The all-American second baseman boasts a career batting average of .437 and a career .503 on-base percentage, both program records, and has led the team in stolen bases in each of the past two seasons.
“He’s been the full package,” Brosius said of Wilson. “He runs well, gets on base, can hit for power and drives in runs.”
Chamberlain, Harlow and Kramer Lindell are prime candidates to flush out the middle of the order; all three hit above .300 in 2012. Johnson heated up toward the end of last season and looks to carry over that momentum into his junior year. Outfielder Nate McClellan returns stronger and faster in his third season with the Wildcats. Clayton Truex hopes to reprise or better the offensive production from his rookie campaign, in which he hit .325 for 43 RBI, 14 doubles and nine homers. If his numbers bounce back, he should see significant time as the team’s designated hitter or at first base.
Juniors Nick Fisher and Jake Wylie, part-time starters a season ago, and sophomores Jackson Ruckert and Cory VanDomelen should assume greater roles in 2013. Freshman outfielder Finn McMichael is one of the most promising newcomers fighting for a spot in the starting lineup.
For the first time in at least a couple of seasons, Linfield’s pitching arsenal gets called into question after losing the bulk of its staff – including two starters – to graduation.
Rest assured, plenty of weapons will jog out to Wildcats’ newly turfed mound every weekend. In what has come down to essentially a four-way battle for the three starting positions, the key is finding the correct role for each pitcher and giving him the greatest opportunity for success.
A healthy Zach Manley, returning starter Zach Brandon and sophomores Aaron Thomassen and Chris Haddeland are the most experienced hurlers on staff.The four combined for 18 starts, 11 wins, 110 strikeouts and a 3.41 ERA last season and should shoulder the greatest responsibilities on the mound.
Other key members of the rotation include Justin Huckins and Joe Stevick, who after logging most of their innings in the junior varsity ranks are now ready for the challenge of the “big leagues.”
“I have a lot of confidence in our staff as a whole,” Brosius said. “We are legitimately eight or nine deep.”
Across the board, depth is a huge asset for this year’s Wildcat team. Unfortunately, it has already been dipped into. Zach Boskovich, an all-American outfielder and Linfield’s single-season home run record holder, hangs up his bat after a prolific, but injury-riddled career. Though he remains a part of the program as a student assistant coach, his absence in the lineup leaves big holes to fill.
Unranked and not even favored to win their conference, the ‘Cats find themselves in a different situation than they are have grown accustomed to, as far as outside expectations are concerned. Linfield was slated third in a preseason straw vote of the Northwest Conference’s coaches, behind defending co-champion Whitworth and perennial contender Pacific Lutheran.
But if the Wildcats maintain the focus they have demonstrated throughout the fall and preseason, fully expect Linfield to be in the thick of what should amount to an extremely tight title race.
“I expect it to be a very deep, very difficult conference to win this year,” Brosius said. “I’d be very surprised if somebody went through the conference with a really high win-loss percentage. There are going to be a lot of weekends this year where teams will be battling to win a series, not necessarily to try to gain a sweep all the time.”
With one of the most challenging schedules put together in recent memory, Linfield has plenty of opportunities to prepare for the demands of the conference slate.
For the fourth straight season, Linfield opens the year with four games at the Arizona Desert Classic, including matchups against 2012 playoff participants La Verne and 13th/16th-ranked Concordia (Texas). The ‘Cats also trek down to California over spring break and end the regular season with a three-game nonconference series against NAIA powerhouse Lewis-Clark State College and NWC foes Whitworth and Pacific Lutheran.
“We really have a strong, difficult schedule, which is exactly what we want,” Brosius said. “In order to play at the national level, we have to play teams that are that caliber and prepare ourselves.”