With no doubts of the club’s stellar team chemistry and propensity to work hard, Linfield hopes the quick maturation of its pitching staff and steady offensive production up and down the lineup can result in the Wildcats’ fourth consecutive playoff appearance in 2016 under a new, yet familiar, team manager.
Scott Carnahan, who amassed 562 victories in 24 years from 1984-2007, steps back into the head coaching role following the departure of Scott Brosius. But with Carnahan’s familiarity with the team, particularly the pitchers, and an all-alumni coaching staff that is “of one mind” the Wildcats are in good position to make a run at a Northwest Conference championship.
If there’s one thing for certain, it’s how different the Wildcats’ pitching staff will look this year, both in terms of personnel and approach. Replacing two all-Americans and the program’s all-time winningest pitchers is not an easy feat, but Linfield has some talented candidates ready to fill those big shoes.
Returning arms Cal Neely, Riley Newman and Joe Perryman are battling for starting roles along with a pair of lefties, a first for the Linfield pitching staff in many years.
Newman has the most experience of the bunch, having made 12 starts as a sophomore, while Neely capped off the year with a five-hit, shutout performance in the playoffs. Left-handers Cason Cunningham, who served four years in the United States Marine Corps before enrolling at Linfield, and Carter Buuck, a conference pitcher of the year transfer from Concordia-Wisconsin, are two talented newcomers that give the Wildcats a different look to throw at opposing hitters.
“A real question mark going into the season was the experience we have returning on the mound,” Carnahan said. “We have some very capable pitchers that, as they get game experience, will get better and better.”
Those who do not crack the three-man starting rotation join co-captain Cody Walker, who registered a 2.05 ERA in 16 appearances and has six career saves, on the relief staff, which also includes frontrunners Matt Strang and Dylan Peters.
Ryan Pladson and Jake Gellos constitute a solid catching tandem to help support the pitching staff and provide leadership behind the plate.
In the field, Linfield returns the majority of its starting defenders.
“We have enough experience among our returning players to be a solid defensive team all year,” Carnahan said.
Ben Andrews and co-captain Eric Lawson anchor the infield at first and third base, respectively, while David Mason slides over from second to replace an all-region shortstop. Kekoa Kaulukukui and Brady Rediger each have great middle infield defensive skills and could split time at second base.
Finn McMichael returns in center field with either Ryan Ross or Alex Hendra-Brown covering left and Scott Hilpert, who started 16 games in left last season, getting the nod in right field. Freshman Cameron Fox, a McMinnville native, could also potentially see time in the outfield.
Offensively, McMichael is expected to reprise his role as the sparkplug at the top of the lineup, getting on base before fellow veterans Lawson and Andrews produce big hits and drive in runs. Mason, who drove in a team-best five runs from the nine spot at the regional tournament, has made big improvements and could shoulder more offensive responsibility.
“McMichael is the catalyst leadoff guy and we need to have Lawson, Andrews and the rest of the supporting cast to be solid,” Carnahan said. “Right now I feel pretty good about our lineup 1-9 and we also have some depth.”
Linfield’s “better than average” team speed gives the team plenty of scoring options and makes the team a big threat on the bases for opponents. The Wildcats’ stole 65 bases last season, second most among league squads.
Another one of Linfield’s greatest strengths, perhaps even more important than performance abilities and skill sets according to Carnahan, is leadership and team cohesion.The Wildcats boast six seniors, but they have done a fantastic job in setting the tone for a team-first mentality.
A 4-0 start to the year gave coaches, players and fans a sneak peak at Linfield’s potential for greatness, should all the pieces come together. Over the four games against league opponents, the ‘Cats yielded just two runs while totaling 26.
“We have to perpetuate what we did in the early season on the mound,” Carnahan said. “That’s a big question for me: can we pitch that well all year long? Defensively we made some great plays. In situations when we needed big plays we got them. If we can continue do those things we’ll be a difficult team to beat.”