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3 Pilot Alumni Share Major Aspirations

Jan. 8, 2007

By Jason Vondersmith
The Portland Tribune
Jan 2, 2007

Three former teammates at the University of Portland could make their major league baseball debuts at some point in 2007.

Which raises the question: Why did coach Chris Sperry's 2002 Pilots, who featured pitcher Eric Hull, outfielder Kory Casto and infielder Travis Hanson, only go 24-30 overall and 16-14 in the West Coast Conference?

"Our starting nine could go against any in the league," says Hull, a Los Angeles Dodger farmhand who pitched at Class AAA Las Vegas last year. "We weren't as deep -- not a lot of reserve players."

Casto, who could break camp with the Washington Nationals this year, says that "we were an all right team; winning in the WCC isn't easy." Pro potential with some players doesn't always translate into good college teams, either, he adds.

"It's a more refined game, quicker, less `hurrah' stuff. It's a grind," he says of the pros. "(College) guys aren't always the players that they're going to be."

Hanson will play Triple-A in Memphis this year -- still very much on St. Louis' radar after an illness ruined his 2006 season.

"Even the guys who weren't drafted (at UP) were good," he says.

Casto, Hull and Hanson are on the 40-man roster. Stepping up is the hard part, and Casto is the one with the best shot this season.

Casto, 25, has been consistent and good for three years. He hit .272 with 20 homers and 80 RBIs for Class AA Harrisburg last season. He also switched from third base to left field, with Washington maneuvering to call him up if the Nationals traded Alfonso Soriano.

Washington held on to Soriano but traded him in the offseason, leaving Casto to compete with Ryan Church and former Seattle player Chris Snelling in left.

"It seems like I'll get a fair shot," says Casto, who attended North Marion High and lives in Sherwood. "They don't let you know what's going on. I'm going to get a chance."

Casto has been named Washington's minor league player of the year after the past two seasons. Before his good Double-A season, he hit .290 with 22 homers and 90 RBIs at Class A Potomac in 2005 and .286 with 16 homers and 88 RBIs at Class A Savannah in 2004. He knows how to hit and feels comfortable back in the outfield. The Nationals have been impressed.

"I like his bat, his character and his defense," the team's assistant general manager, Bob Boone, said last season. "He is a very superior left fielder. He will not chase pitches."

Consistency's the thing

The 6-1, 200-pound Casto, who hit better than .300 in Arizona Fall League, has a good approach at hitting -- maybe his best attribute. He had more than 80 walks the past two seasons.

"Consistency is what they're looking for," says Casto, who will play Triple-A at Columbus, Ohio, if he doesn't make the Nationals.

Casto and Hanson, who turns 26 on Jan. 24, work out together at UP in the offseason. They're both similar hitters: left-handers who hit the ball to all fields. Hanson grew up in Port Orchard, Wash., and married the former Lauren Orlandos, a current Pilot assistant soccer coach and ex-UP star defender. The couple lives near the UP campus.

Hanson hit .284 with 20 homers and 97 RBIs for Double-A Springfield in 2005. He started the 2006 training camp well, only to be stricken with an illness that put him out for 10 days -- he lost 15 pounds in five days. Hanson never fully recovered and batted just .223 with three homers and 38 RBIs at Springfield and Triple-A Memphis.

"I don't want to make excuses, but looking back at how good I felt in batting practice the day before (the illness)," he says, "I never came close to that the rest of the season."

Doctors later said he had cryptosporidium, a parasite that probably knocked him down in 2005 as well. "It can be dormant," he says. "I have no clue -- I don't know if it will come back."

Triple-A's the charm?

Hanson says making the Cardinals in spring training isn't realistic, but he wants to prove himself at Triple-A this season. He is likely to play third base, where his defense has improved.

"I'm hoping to have a solid season and get a September call-up," he says.

Hanson's Memphis team faced Hull's Las Vegas team in Pacific Coast League action this year. Hanson told his teammates to be careful, because Hull was "dead-on with his fastball, a precision control guy."

Hull, who lives near Yakima, Wash., says the presence of veteran pitchers with the Dodgers probably will prevent him from making the club.

"I'd have to have a great spring," says Hull, 27.

He went 2-4 with a 4.19 ERA in 44 games and 73 innings for Las Vegas last season.

"I'm pretty much in the bullpen from now on," he says. "The next step is, I'm going to have to show I can throw a breaking ball in different counts. I've relied on fastball location to get out of jams."