Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Series Preview: Wenatchee

Wenatchee, Wa- On the outside, this match-up between the Sweets and the Applesox does not muster up the excitement that some might think. It is a series with two teams that are fighting to stay out of last place in the East Division, but it is much more than that. 
It is a series of bragging rights as the Sweets come in with a 4-2 advantage on the season series. After winning the season series last year 6-3, the Sweets just need one win to take the series again. The Sweets actually hold the advantage between the two, taking 22 of 40 games since 2010. 
Wenatchee has found a lot of success over the past few years as they missed the post-season for the first time in their history last year, but it has been a different story this season. They invite Walla Walla in with a 21-27 record this season. The pitching has been a problem this season as the Applesox post a 4.56 Earned Run Average this season as a team which is second to last in the league. 
The Sweets are coming into Applesox country with a five game losing streak and they have also lost seven out of their last eight games. During the losing streak, the Sweets' have struggled on defense, averaging three errors a game. They will turn to Kyle Molnar, fresh off his no-hitter in Kitsap, to try and stop the streak in game one.
-Zach Bigley

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Soundboard - Yakima & Bellingham

The roadie has taken a big chunk out of our schedule at this point, and certainly taken me out of rhythm, but it hasn't taken the microphones out from in front of the players and coaches (as you'll see with the Sweet Scoop finally launching this afternoon).

Let's roll all the way back to Saturday, with Micah Gorman on the mound and dominating Yakima Valley for six scoreless innings. What did the young VMI right-hander think of his outing?

Mutz is a big fan of Gorman, and Skipper went into detail about why he likes what Gorman brings to the rotation.

Joe DeMers followed on from Gorman to make his WCL debut and got the side in order for the first two innings. Pretty impressive work for a kid straight out of high school, and Frank Mutz was impressed.

That upcoming start was Tuesday in Bellingham, and the youngster from Northern California didn't disappoint - a quality start, with two runs allowed in six innings and seven strikeouts, a new season-high for a Sweets starter.

How about a little offense before we move forward? The team seems to really be buying into the notion of going back through the box for hits. Here's Skipper:

That was a big part of the four-run fifth inning that gave Walla Walla a win on Wednesday night in Bellingham.

Let's fast-forward to that win in Bellingham, where Easton Lucas got the start. He spoke to us about battling through hitters despite having lower-than-usual velocity and coming back from home runs.

His relief was Chris Tate, who pitched four scoreless innings for the save, Tate talked about his approach in relief of Lucas, and the importance of a lead like the one he had coming in.

Tate might be pitching to contact, but not many guys are making contact against him - Tate leads the West Coast League with 20 strikeouts in 16.1 innings. I'll pause while you guffaw at that number. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Done? Done.

Back to the bats. Parker Coss made his debut with the Sweets on the road trip, and Frank Mutz loves what he's seen from the rising sophomore at UC Irvine so far.

Coss has settled in now, having been with Walla Walla almost a week, and capped the four-run fifth-inning that won the Sweets the game with an RBI single. He talked to us on the importance of those big innings.

Then there's the outtake for this edition of The Soundboard. Before our interview, Frank Mutz patted Tate on the back and said, "Good thing you found your uniform today!" I asked Tate what he meant, and he said this:

We've all been there, forgetting something important somewhere else. Just so long as he doesn't leave his off-speed pitches in the hotel, he should be just fine.

And that's the Soundboard from Bellingham. Rubber match tonight at 7:05!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Lead-Off - Week 2

So, there were a few technical issues yesterday, which is why this is going up this morning. The chief one is, my computer refused to boot until about two hours before game time, meaning everything was scaled down or pushed back. Hence, The Lead-Off is on Tuesday this week. Everyone cross your fingers that this doesn't happen again.

The first full week of the WCL season is done, and the season feels like it's in the home stretch already. All teams have 1/6th of their schedules behind them now. When they say "short-season baseball," they mean "short season baseball."

Let's start with a clash that started the weekend with first-place implications in the East. After the Sweets won a three-game set of pitcher's duels with Wenatchee with a tenth-inning walk off from ten-day player Clayten Ayres - who has since been picked up for the full season - they headed to Yakima to take on Stanley Pippin and Friends. The Sweets won game one and were well on their way to the second tilt until the seventh. From there on out, the Pippins scored two runs in each of the last three frames, culminating in this number from Reid Martinez:

Ryan Rouillard, Pippins Radio Network

That was Martinez's first home run of the year, and the first Easton Lucas had allowed since April 30, 2014 - as a junior in high school. The Sweets got the better of the Pippins in the rubber match, though. After tying the game in the fifth and falling behind again, the Sweets went ahead in the sixth:

Keith Brake, Sweets Radio Network

That was just the third RBI of the year for Kopach, but it was the one that made the difference. Walla Walla's pitching staff closed the door, and the Sweets took the series from Yakima Valley. They've won three of the four series between the two teams in their combined history.

The Pippins were trying to hold off the Kelowna Falcons for first place in the division, but their half-game lead was eroded by the series loss. Well, that and a Kelowna surge to win four straight to end the week, starting with a win over Yakima Valley in the finale of their set at Elks Stadium and ending with a sweep of the Medford Rogeu. The Falcons have kept the long ball going with two more in the Medford set, one each from Justin Flores and Brandon Grimsley. They're tied for the league lead in home runs with seven total, and are in non-league action against the Okanagan Athletics before going to Yakima to face the Pippins for first place in the division.

Speaking of first place, that's where the reigning champs are. The Bellingham Bells had split their first two games with Klamath Falls after taking two of three from Corvallis in the midweek series. Much like the Falcons, the Bells used a power surge to put away the Gems.

Erik Oas, Bells Radio Network

The back-to-back homers came from Andrew Reichenbach and Bronson Larsen and pushed the Bells to a 9-6 win. Bellingham meets Walla Walla in a set starting tonight at Joe Martin Field.

Kitsap and Victoria both give chase to the Bells as they scrap to get back to .500. The BlueJackets took two of three from Cowlitz with an 8-1 win in a rubber match Sunday, while Victoria dropped two of three to the Bend Elks in their weekend set, then came home and dropped the opener of their set with the Black Bears Monday night.

Bend, meanwhile, is not only atop their division, but atop the lead with a 7-2 record entering today's action. Their pitching staff that led the league in ERA at the end of the first weekend has cooled off, but the Elks still got good outings from Patrick McGuff (2 runs on 3 hits with 5 strikeouts in 5 innings) and Aaron Leasher (1 run on 2  hits with 8 strikeouts in 5 innings). Oh, and their offense gave them a good outing, too: they beat Victoria by an eye-popping scoreline of 24-5 on Friday.

The Elks lead the South Division by two games, with Corvallis back in stride with a sweep of the Wenatchee AppleSox to string together four straight wins, while Medford sits two and a half games back after a rocky week, and Cowlitz brings up the rear in the South.

What will change? Who will rise and fall in the next week? The races will be much more developed when we lead off Week 3 in less than seven days.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Rinks, Diamonds, and Lost Twitter Passwords - The Sporting Life and Times of Jon Hechtner

On a breezy early May afternoon in Fargo, North Dakota, Jon Hechtner stood in against IPFW’s Evan Miller for his third at-bat. Miller was 6.2 innings into a shutout, completely unsuspecting of the two run rally in the eighth that would not only break that shutout, but cost his team the last game of their series at North Dakota State. He delivered a pitch a little too high and a little too tight - and it hit Hechtner square in the face, effectively ending his junior season.

“That was just kinda bad luck,” he said with a smile.

Spoken like a hockey player.

As natural as it seems for someone from Omaha - the epicenter of college baseball - to play the national pastime, Hechtner very much could have gone with skates instead of cleats. He was a winger for the local AAA hockey team - the highest level of youth hockey before a player makes the jump to the junior ranks. He faced off against a number of future draft picks and National Hockey League prospects, including 2013 first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon, now of the Colorado Avalanche, who played his AAA hockey at powerhouse Shattuck St. Mary's.

"I got to the point where I had to decide, do I want to play hockey or baseball?" said Hechtner, now a rising senior at North Dakota State. "I decided baseball because of school, and it's really tough in hockey. If you get hurt, you're left with nothing."

It’s not an unfamiliar path: Nyjer Morgan followed a similar one all the way to the Major Leagues, one that brought him to Walla Walla Community College after a stint with the Regina Pats at the turn of the century. Hechtner, however, was left with plenty of lessons that have carried over from one sport to the other, specifically using the word "determination" to describe what he gained from his time on the ice.

"This is not a guy who's 6'3", 210 pounds," said Sweets manager Frank Mutz. "I'm sure he's had to play his entire career to prove to everybody that he can play with anybody. I'm telling you right now, he can play with anybody at the Division I level. He is determined. He works really hard. He is a guy that will lead us through most of this year in the lead-off spot. The way he grinds out at bats and the way that he approaches the game, it's not too high, not too low."

It’s true smaller athletes like Hechtner, who stands 5’10” and 175 pounds, often find themselves needing to do more to find success when competing for playing time against bigger athletes, but that added challenge has shaped Hechtner into a player who can lead his team without big, boisterous gestures.

"He's not gonna be a guy that talks a lot or is really loud, but he goes on the field, and he makes sure the guys know the right way to do things," said hitting coach Jimmy Milkovich. "When guys see him play, they know that's what they need to do, and that's how they need to follow."

Unfortunately, the outfielder didn’t get many opportunities to set an example in Fargo this year. He dealt with arm injuries for much of the season, taking just two at-bats from March 15 to April 24. When he came back, he hit .476 with eight RBIs in seven games before getting struck by a pitch on May 3 against IPFW.

It’s very much to the benefit of the Sweets that Hechtner was able to fight through the bad luck and nagging injuries to come back at the tail end of NDSU’s season, playing in the final game of the year against IPFW at the Summit League Tournament then coming to Walla Walla less than two weeks later, ready to play and showing no sign of permanent damage from being struck by an errant baseball.

“We have a lot of young guys on this team, a lot of kids coming from high school going to Division I programs” Mutz said. “[Hechtner] is a guy that, when we go on the road, is going to have younger guys rooming with him. That’s a guy in the dugout that’s walking around talking to guys, and he’s a winner. If I'm going to go out and recruit guys to play in my program, I'm going to go watch and look for the guys that come from winning programs. The reason he's such a good leader, is he has learned how to win and do it the right way with the right attitude.”

Hechtner, one of three rising Division I seniors in the field for the Sweets, has found success at every level in some shape or form. At Creighton Prep, he was an All-Nebraska selection in 2012, leading his team to a Class A state title. That summer, he went to the American Legion World Series with an Omaha Post No. 1 team that won 51 games. As a sophomore, he was part of a Summit League championship with the Bison, along with Sweets alumni Jon Skrbec, Michael Leach, and Jay Flaa. Hechtner grabbed a spot on the Summit League’s All-Tournament team en route to the title and the NCAA Regionals.

But the hardware and accolades aren’t the only things that make Hechtner stand out. He has, at times, sported a bold mustache, which added handlebars this year but didn’t make it to the baseball season, and one locked social media account made him into something of an on-campus Twitter celebrity.

It’s quite frequent that high-level coaches, athletes, and other famous people of all sorts end up with fake Twitter accounts parodying them which are generally innocuous and used for humorous ends. Rarely did the target previously have control over the account, but such is the case with Boring Jon Hechtner, the outfielder’s parody handle on Twitter.

Hechtner explained he got locked out of his old Twitter account, but one of his friends had gotten hold of the password. Rather than delete the account, his friend insisted on keeping it and having some fun with it.

“I said, ‘Just don’t do anything to get me in trouble,’” he said. With that, Hechtner had what amounted to a fan-run Twitter account, profiling "his" adventures of walking into Wal-Mart through the out door and other assorted deeds. That account has gone quiet for some time, not tweeting anything since the end of January, but it’s still out there. If he continues to play like he has, Boring Jon Hechtner might be a little more lively.

“If he does have a fan club,” said Mutz, “I want to know what the password is so I can join.”

Sounds like the real Jon Hechtner has some new fans already.

Soundboard: Games 5 & 6 vs. Wenatchee

What a series. Shutouts were traded in a series for just the second time in Sweets history, and it ends with a walk-off from Clayten Ayres, the hero from WWCC's Super Regional final in May. Let's walk it back first, though, and go to Wednesday night, when things weren't so great after a one-hit shutout. Frank Mutz talked about changing the approaches of his hitters but also spent a lot of time praising the efforts of his pitching staff, like Chris Tate, who threw a season-high eight strikeouts in three innings out of the bullpen.

Several players have joined the Sweets over the last 72 hours, starting with Moe Handcox on Tuesday, then Paul Heywood and Matt Whitney before Wednesday's game, and Joe DeMers, Willie MacIver, Trevin Hazeltine, and returner Kyle Nixon yesterday afternoon. Mutz said the extra depth will be valuable, particularly in the outfield.

Hechtner did get the night off, although he came in as a pinch runner when Skipper cleared the bench late in Thursday's game. So let's move forward a night to another tenth inning game that went much differently. Take it away, Frank!

Wenatchee only brought seven pitchers on the road trip, and Colton Loomis, who came in for the excellent C.J. Gettman in the eighth, was the seventh. Cooper Powell was pretty outstanding on the mound for the Sweets, too, and handed in the first quality start for a Sweets pitcher this year after his start last Saturday broke down in the fourth. The Nevada lefty says he's shaking off the rust.

He also kept his team in the contest. Then Alex Fisher came in and threw two very impressive innings, and Cam Richman shut the door in the tenth after giving up a run in the ninth and pitched very well overall. The staff is getting better, and Mutz says it's not just the talent coming in, but also the pitching coach, Jim Ozella.

The pitchers are no doubt excited for him to be here, too, considering he has this guy and this guy on his coaching C.V., just to name a couple. (It's also his birthday

Clayten Ayres was the big hero of the night Thursday, and the Kennewick native said dramatic wins like that keep the juices flowing.

Ayres also said the staff has approached him about sticking around for the long haul, along with Walla Walla CC teammates Jake Simmons and Dylan Wilbert. Mutz confirmed the move.

There it is, straight from the proverbial horse's mouth.

Walla Walla travels to Yakima tomorrow for a 7:05 contest. The Pippins just dropped their first game of the season, a 6-5 defeat in Kelowna at the hands of the Falcons. Micah Gorman gets the start.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Soundboard - Game 4 vs. Wenatchee

Like most managers, Frank Mutz is not terribly fond of 1-0 games for the very reason fans (and broadcasters) are - they're so close - but I think he'll take a two-hit shutout from his pitching staff like the one he got last night. Here's the boss on the key to his team's success:

Addie Rincon got the start for the Sweets and went deeper than any starter to date on the young season. How did he feel about his first outing?

He did have four walks, but Mutz said any trouble the southpaw has with command isn't serious.

And that's completely true. Even after giving up a walk, Rincon made the pitches he needed to make to get outs and limit pressure on himself; Wenatchee never had more than one base runner in a given inning against him.

Jake Simmons kept that trend going and has put in a couple of great outings during his 10-day contract with maybe one more to go before that deal expires. Skipper has taken note of his work, although he was a little nervous watching him warm up:

What did the Walla Walla CC pitcher have to say about his night? We talked to him about his bullpen time and his aggressiveness on the mound.

Paid big dividends for everybody. Before the game, I spoke to Cam Richman - who got the save with a perfect ninth inning - and asked him if he liked being aggressive.

His answer was simple: "Yeah," with a slight smile. The ninth inning was case in point.

Moe Handcox was a big factor in his first game on a ten-day contract, with the sac fly and several impressive displays of speed to track down balls in left field. Skipper came away impressed.

Now another group of pitchers looks to go out and attack Wenatchee tonight, led by another lefty - Easton Lucas, who has already thrown for Walla Walla this year, though it wasn't so much by design as necessity.

Six pitches? This is going to be fun.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Lead Off - Week 1

This is the Lead Off, our weekly look at the goings on around the West Coast League, featuring highlights and game sound to showcase the personalities that have taken root on the Northwest's collegiate baseball circuit.

The West Coast League season started in earnest this week with all twelve teams in action, ten of which were paired against each other in the first league match-ups of the season. Fittingly enough, a lead off man starts The Lead Off: Jace Van De Brake got the ball (or in this case, the apple) rolling for the Pippins against Klamath Falls.

(Ryan Rouillard, Pippins Radio Network)

The redshirt freshman at Gonzaga had just two RBIs but went 6-for-10 with six walks and three stolen bases atop the Pippins order and was named the WCL Player of the Week for his troubles. Yakima Valley put a massive hurt on the Gems at The Orchard, sweeping the opening series of 2015 and outscoring them 32-6 over the weekend. Van De Brake set the table for the likes of Reid Martinez, who set a team record with six RBIs in the record-setting 16-2 rout the Pippins posted on Sunday, one of six Pippins team records to fall that night.

Yakima will travel to face Kelowna next, after the Falcons - who've won just 33 games in the last two years - stunned some sizable crowds at Royal Athletic Park in Victoria. Second-year manager Billy Clontz and his team took two of three from the HarbourCats on the road this weekend, capped by an 8-3 hit parade on Sunday. The Falcons hit four home runs in the game as part of 17 total hits in an impressive offensive display matched by Fremont, California, native Elias Bedolla, who threw six scoreless innings with just two hits and seven strikeouts to get the win for Kelowna, their fourth in the last six meetings with Victoria. The timing couldn't be better for Kelowna, as a pair of corporate partners have bought out the entire stadium for their home opener on Tuesday, meaning every seat is free.

The HarbourCats welcome the Kitsap BlueJackets to SportsTraders Diamond Tuesday night after Kitsap went on the road to Bellingham to face the reigning WCL champion Bells. It was the home team's day in the opener, with the Bells withstanding a two-run rally in the ninth for a 4-3 win and blwoing out the BlueJackets on Saturday, 11-2. Dustin Brashears homered twice in the series, and Bellingham's pitching was in good form from the outset, never allowing more than three earned runs and posting a .240 opposing batting average.

Indeed, their pitching was almost as good as the staff for the Bend Elks, who took on perennial powerhouse Corvallis in Bend over the weekend. The Knights tossed a 3-0 shutout on Friday, but the Elks only gave up one more earned run on the weekend, winning 8-5 on Saturday and 7-1 on Sunday. All three of the Elks' starters lasted at least six innings, something no other staff did on opening weekend. Pitching coach Alan Embree should be proud.

Walla Walla's staff didn't even have its pitching coach until Sunday; Jim Ozella's Hart High School Indians went to the CIF Southern Section Division I champinship game after upsetting baseball juggernaut JSerra Catholic. He missed the opening night tilt against the Medford Rogues, but the Sweets staff held the fort while Chris McCready put on a show.

(Keith Brake, Sweets Radio Network)

McCready went 3-for-3 with a walk, two RBIs, two runs scored, and finished the triple shy of the cycle as the Sweets held off the Rogues late to win 7-4. Medford bounced back to take game two 5-4, then got a lift from Derron Davis to win the rubber match in ten innings, 10-9. Davis got an RBI double off pitcher Sean-Luke Brija to give the Rogues the lead in the bonus frame, his fifth hit and sixth time on base in the game. Medford won the opening series for the first time in its franchise's history, while the Sweets dropped to 2-4 all-time in openers.

In non-league action, the Wenatchee AppleSox took three of four starting on Thursday, splitting with the San Francisco Seals and sweeping two games from the Spokane Expos, including a 15-4 rout on Sunday. The Cowlitz Black Bears dropped their Thursday night contest against the Thurston County Senators 7-6, but bounced back to take three games from three different Portland travel teams: a 9-3 win over the Ports on Friday, a 15-4 blowout of the Stars on Saturday, and an 8-7 win over the Dukes Sunday evening. Cowlitz welcomes Bend to start its WCL slate, while Wenatchee travels south to Borleske to face the Sweets.

Check in with us every Monday for another review of the West Coast League with Episode 2 of The Lead Off!

Soundboard - Game 3 vs. Medford

Another tough loss for the Sweets on Sunday didn't have Frank Mutz in a sour mood. Skipper is still really positive about the direction his team is trending, and ultimately expects good things as more players file in. Here, he talks about the six-run sixth inning rally that put his team on top last night, as well as what his hitters need to do to be successful.

He needed an extra hitter in the ninth when Cody Price was injured fouling off a pitch. Having already used Alex Jondal - his spare position player - to pinch hit for Dyllin Mucha the previous batter, Mutz had to go to Jeider "Addie" Rincon. A pitcher at the plate, boss?

He sure did. That walk forced the game into extra innings, and Rincon is rewarded with the start on Tuesday against Wenatchee. (In reality, the start had long since been determined, but wouldn't that be a great story?)

Mutz is also still low on arms: three of the four pitchers who threw on opening night had to come out of the bullpen on Sunday. Easton Lucas threw two innings the night before and came out to relieve Sean-Luke Brija in the tenth and still looked pretty good. His manager had some strong praise for him after the game.

Cam Richman made his debut for the Sweets earlier in the game after graduating from DeSales on Saturday. He had a pretty vocal cheering section and got by far the loudest ovation of the night when he came in. Mutz said he started out strong.

His team gets a day off today in the middle of the home stand, and it's a non-baseball day for the Sweets:

They'll be back at it Tuesday against Wenatchee. Pregame starts at 7:00 on ESPN Walla Walla.

Stay tuned later today for this week's edition of The Lead-Off!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Postgame Soundboard: Game 1 vs. Medford

Way back in high school, I had a coach who told me, "Fun is the most important thing, but I have a lot more fun when I win." I'd say last night qualifies, so let's delve into the voices from the clubhouse.

Frank Mutz on the turnaround from the exhibition:

Chris McCready agrees and also discusses his round-tripper in the fourth:

Speaking of McCready, what does the skipper think of the LBSU freshman?

Switching to the hill, Sean-Luke Brija talked about the rare start versus closing and battling back after giving up a walk:

Chris Tate came in to relieve Brija and got the win, throwing more innings last night than he had in the last two years at Trinity. The lefty talks about what he learned from tonight:

Walla Walla's four pitchers gave up seven combined walks, but Mutz remained positive on his staff's night:

And lastly, Cooper Powell gets the ball for Walla Walla against Medford tonight. Mutz has seen every indication that he's ready.

Postgame reaction will be up on the blog the morning following every game. Check back after each game day for new sound!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Veteran Brija Ready for One Last Round in WCL

There are three traditional career aspirations for young boys around the age of six or seven: they want to be cowboys, firefighters, or athletes when they grow up. In the Sweets clubhouse, all of those career aspirations are represented, and all by the same man: Sean-Luke Brija.

Brija, 22, is gearing up for his final season of collegiate summer baseball and one more year of baseball at Gonzaga. Athlete, check. The redshirt senior graduated this spring and has a job interview coming up with a fire department west of the Cascades. Firefighter, check.

So, do his hobbies include Stetson hats and cattle drives?

"I'm a cowboy at heart, honestly," said Brija. "I still have a cowboy hat in my truck I wear every time I go driving."

That'll do.

The Reno native - who takes the mound to Johnny Cash's stomp-clap rendition of "God's Gonna Cut You Down" - looks the part of an Old West gunslinger on the diamond. He wears his cap low over his eyes, so the brim frequently casts them in shadow, and traces of the “closer's scowl” have worked their way into his default facial expression. Much like the gunmen of the frontier days, Brija laid down the law for the Sweets in 2013; he holds the club’s single-season records for appearances (22), earned run average (1.09), and saves (13), the latter of which is a WCL record he shares with two other players.

“It took me about ten minutes to figure out what kind of person Sean-Luke is,” said Sweets manager Frank Mutz. “He is a born leader, and he has taken it upon himself to lead our pitching staff and our ball club.”

Once he steps off the field, his stern outer shell melts into an easy smile, but the strong and determined individual remains, along with a work ethic that takes him to some odd places, like the disused swimming pool behind the Sweets clubhouse.

"Our first day, first practice, we showed up about an hour and a half beforehand," said hitting coach Jimmy Milkovich. "There was a guy just sitting in the pool, throwing objects out of the pool, jumping out of the pool, and we didn't know who it was. When we were coming back, coach [Mutz] said, ‘I think that’s Sean-Luke.’"

It was indeed Brija, who the two Chaminade Prep coaches were meeting for the first time. With his YMCA membership through the team yet to be processed, the right-hander still wanted to get as much of his routine in as he could.

"I just needed a place to work out, and it looked like a good place to work out," Brija said with a shrug.

The right-hander’s unorthodox exercise left a positive first impression on the staff, and his performance in practice built on that to the point that Mutz has given him a special opportunity. When the Sweets take the field tonight against the Medford Rogues, Brija will be the starting pitcher, something he will do for the first time in his WCL career and just the third time since becoming a college pitcher.

“He’s getting the ball, yes, because he’s a returning player and a crowd favorite here in Walla Walla, but he’s also a very good pitcher,” said Mutz. “I’m trying to figure out where we are, ranking wise, and he’s at the top of my list right now.”

The outing doesn’t expect to be a long one for Brija, a career reliever who Mutz sees as one of three possible closers for this year’s team, alongside Travis Ulvestad and the yet-to-arrive Max Gamboa. Starting Brija on opening night makes a statement, though: this is Sean-Luke’s team to lead, and wherever he factors into the pitching scheme, he will take that leadership with him.

"I really want to present myself as a leader," he said. "I'm the oldest guy on the team. I've been around. This is my fourth summer season. I know what summer ball is all about. I feel like I've had some good experiences, and I have a lot to bring to the table for these young guys."

"He really took it upon himself when he got here to talk to the younger pitchers and get them going in the right direction as far as working out, doing things during pregame warm-ups, playing catch, and all the little things the pitchers need to do," said Milkovich. "He has really taken on a leadership role without anybody telling him, and the younger guys have started gravitating towards him." The “younger guys” include Ulvestad, a redshirt freshman at San Francisco, who saw Brija pitch when the Dons stacked up against Gonzaga earlier this spring.

“He obviously knows his stuff,” Ulvestad said. “He’s a really good guy to just learn as much as I can from and take all his knowledge and see how he does things. You can pick up one or two things from him, or more, and you don’t want to miss that opportunity.”

In addition to Ulvestad, nine pitchers on the team’s full roster are rising college sophomores or lower, and all of them will have plenty of chances to learn from Brija not just in mechanics or conditioning, but in philosophy, as well.

“My goal is just to have fun,” Brija said. “That’s really why I wanted to come back to Walla Walla for my last season.”

“I’m getting a little bit older,” he says with a smile, “and I’m realizing that baseball is supposed to be fun. You’re supposed to have fun playing baseball, and that’s really what I want to do this summer is just have a lot of fun.”

Brija had quite a bit of fun against the Rogues in 2013, when he collected four saves in five appearances and allowed no runs and just two hits over 5.2 innings. I brought his handiwork against Medford to his attention at practice on Thursday.

“I think they’re going to remember that, ” I said.

“Yeah,” he said without missing a beat. “I think they will, too.”

Needless to say, Sean-Luke Brija will have to lay down the law again in 2015, and there's no reason to think he won't be ready right from the outset.

Chatterbox: Refrigerator Raid Edition

Each week, we'll take the best bits and quotes from Sweets players and put them in our Thursday feature for the listening pleasure of our audience. This week's edition is for before, during, or after your late-night snack.

This week, a special shouldn't-be-up-at-this-hour edition as we make the run-up to Opening Night presented by Edward Jones at Borleske. The Sweets dropped a strange exhibition in Yakima that featured two designated hitters in the home lineup, and a bottom of the ninth inning after the game had been won by the Pippins, so Travis Ulvestad pitched in front of about 50 fans instead of 1,500.

So, what were the impressions of the new manager Frank Mutz after his team's first outing? He likes the pitching staff:

The bats definitely came out slow, with just four hits and a double-digit strikeout total. Who steps up to lead the offense? Hitting coach Jimmy Milkovich weighs in:

Hechtner snagged a hit in three at-bats, drew a walk, and stole a base late. McCready picked up a single going the other way that bounced into foul territory but got cut down trying to stretch the single into a double. Geary came up empty in four trips, but put together some competitive at-bats. Speaking of Geary, he did a little of everything with VMI, starting as a leadoff man and shifting down in the order as the season went on to generate more RBI opportunities. Geary says there isn't much change in approach:

Geary likely won't lead off much, especially early in the season with so many fast outfielders ahead of him in the order. Is he okay with that?

Mutz also has the first four pitchers in his rotation set, at least until more players file in. In addition to Sean-Luke Brija (more on this later) starting opening night against Medford, the Sweets will roll out southpaw Cooper Powell on Saturday. Powell has quite a reputation, says the skipper:

As for the former Gatorade Nevada Player of the Year, he wants to take things as they come in his first live game in over a year:

Sunday will see Micah Gorman get the ball with the hopes of grinding his way through a good outing:

With a day off Monday, the fourth starter will go Tuesday against Wenatchee. That's Jeider "Papi" Rincon, another left-hander who brings a teammate with him in Travis Ulvestad. Ulvestad sat the Pippins down in order in the ninth, and sized up his fellow USF Don for us:

Mutz was quite pleased with Rincon's work in Yakima, and simply for the chance to have him here as a more or less last-minute addition:

Rincon struck out two of the three batters he faced in the eighth inning on Wednesday.

Lighter Stuff
There was no doubt or debate about where Sean-Luke Brija would stay when he returned to Walla Walla. We got his thoughts on the Swanson family:

David Geary shares similar enthusiasm for the weather in the Walla Walla Valley compared to the muggy climes of the South this time of year:

The One That's Better in Print

For some reason, there's always an outtake or a piece of sound from every venture of this sort that, while funny or quotable, doesn't quite make it cleanly to tape. Outfielder Jon Hechtner provides this week's example with a line regarding his impressive mustache that didn't make the trip to Walla Walla nor, as it turns out, to the spring.

"I haven't had [the mustache] since picture day. Coaches are giving me flak, so it might come back. You never know."

Hechtner has opted for the full beard instead, which requires less precision and gives him a head start on everyone else come postseason time, but at least there's a chance.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Sweet Beat Rides Again!

"I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin." - Neo, The Matrix (1999)

Some of Neo's most famous words set the tone for the revival of Sweet Beat for the 2015 season. ("I know kung fu" and "whoa" were close runners-up). This year, we want to make it a place for fans to connect with our city's team, with the West Coast League, and with the rich baseball history of Southeastern Washington. In this space, readers will see feature stories highlighting some of the Sweets players and their travails in the baseball world; stories and highlights from around the West Coast League; postgame reaction from every Sweets game, and, my personal favorite, a look at the assorted eateries across the small (and occasionally large) Pacific Northwest towns and cities that populate the circuit.

In fact, I'll let you mark your calendars with a programming lineup of sorts. It looks like this:

MONDAY - The Lead-Off - Kick-start the week in baseball with a run back through the week that was in the WCL, featuring highlights and audio from coaches and players across the league.

TUESDAY - Sweet Scoop - We manage to get a Sweets player to stand still in front of a camera long enough to have him answer questions.

WEDNESDAY - Taste of the Road - Get a feel for the personality of each city the Sweets travel to, and live vicariously through me as you watch me eat at all sorts of cool places across three states.

THURSDAY - The Chatterbox - The best sound bites from the Sweets (and maybe a few league-wide) rounded up in one place.

FRIDAY - Feature Day - Meet one of the players who went to the 2008 Little League World Series, two California prep stars, the coach of Mariner bane James Shields, and many more of the characters and storylines that call the Walla walla clubhouse home.

SATURDAY - Weekend Scoop - A potpourris of sorts that could produce any kind of content. Could it be a long-form story on a player from the Sweets, or even from another team? Could it be another video feature? Maybe it'll just be a GIF of me doing my John Travolta impression. (Okay, probably not.)

SUNDAY - Baseball in the Valley - Ever heard of Tiny Leonard? How about Tony Gwynn? Ozzie Smith? John Kruk? Kurt Russell? Baseball has a tremendous history in Walla Walla, and we want to cover as much of it as we can in ten weeks. See what the voices of history, both long past and more recent, have to say in this Sunday afternoon feature series.

That's what to look for. The Sweet Beat lineup will get started with The Lead-Off on Monday, June 8 - one week from today. In the meantime, we'll have more daily coverage of the Sweets as opening night looms just four days away.

Now, a little about myself... I'm something of a Johnny-come-lately to baseball, having fallen in love with the atmosphere of the sport when I was 19 and began covering my university's team in Tennessee (East Tennessee State, for the record). Since then, I've committed myself to studying the game's unmatched sporting history and its influence on and reflection of the cultural fabric of America. I've spent the last two years working with the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, getting to work with the likes of Kyle Hendricks, Addison Russell, and Kris Bryant, just to name a few, and working with the St. Louis Cardinals' rookie league affiliate for two seasons before that. Baseball, to paraphrase the great Chico Escuela, has been very, very good to me thus far in my young career, giving me the bulk of my opportunities to flex the broadcasting muscles I've been honing since early childhood. I've spent all of two weeks in Walla Walla, but the region has already captured my imagination, and the people have been extraordinary. I look forward to bringing baseball to this community every way I know how!