Feb. 13, 2009
Portland Pilots head coach Chris Sperry hopes to simplify things this season.
"See the ball, hit the ball," Sperry said regarding the goals of this year's team. "I am hoping that we stay focused on the things that we can control. We can't necessarily control the results, we can only control the process and how we prepare. Result orientated goals aren't bad to have, but they're so far out there that it doesn't provide daily motivation for you. So what the process becomes is: see ball, hit ball."
In an obvious nod to all-time MLB career hits leader Pete Rose, Sperry and the Pilots are determined to out-prepare the competition this season, both physically and mentally. Sperry points to a specific moment last season where the Pilots might have lost their edge mentally after a solid start to the season.
"We had a tough game at Washington last year that just kind of stunned us and we never really recovered from that," said Sperry, who is in his 12th season as head coach of the Pilots. "I think that part of it was youth. We had a lot of young guys, and even some of our older players were new to the program as transfers.
"We just didn't handle that loss really well and the learning experience is that this is a game that you play so often that you are going to fail some of the time. It's hard to win 56 games, so when you have that day you have to be able to come back from it."
That's why Sperry and the Pilots spent last fall and the off-season focused on the mental side of the game.
"We spend so much time working on the physical part that sometimes the mental side gets lost," adds Sperry. "I think this team has the potential to be stronger mentally because many of them lived through it and I think recognized the need to focus on the mental part of the game."
Last year's team finished at 21-33 overall (3-18 West Coast Conference) after opening the season 12-5. The early-season success featured wins over eighth-ranked Michigan and eventual national champion Fresno State.
25 returning letterwinners and seven starters return from last year's squad a year older and more experienced. Six newcomers and two redshirts join the mix this spring.
The Pilots will feature a veteran pitching staff as Mark Triolo, Matthew Lange and Brennan Thorpe are back for their senior campaigns. Triolo posted a staff-best five wins last season, going 5-6 overall with a 4.17 earned run average. Lange made a team-high 28 appearances and two starts during his first season on The Bluff. He had a staff-best 2.85 ERA, which ranked sixth in the WCC, and was 3-5 with three saves. Thorpe held right-handed hitters to a .253 batting average and went 2-3 with a 5.52 ERA.
Offensively, the Pilots return sophomore infielder Riley Henricks, who was named to the 2008 All-WCC Team and the conference all-freshman team. He hit .301 as a freshman and led the Pilots in hits (69), doubles (16), triples (5) and total bases (119). He tied for the team high with 29 runs and was second with eight home runs and 29 RBI's. Senior outfielder Bryant Kraus also returns after leading UP with a .313 batting average last spring. During his junior campaign, Kraus scored 29 runs and had seven doubles, six homers and 26 RBI's.
Junior catcher Rocky Gale is back to anchor the Portland defense. Last season, Gale easily led the WCC by throwing out 32 would-be base stealers.
"I think a veteran pitching staff is our number one strength," Sperry said. "We're very good defensively behind the plate and we have a very solid middle infield."
Senior Bryant Kraus will return for his second and final year manning left field for the Pilots. In his first year at UP after transferring from Linn Benton CC, Kraus led the team in hitting after flirting with a .400 batting average for much of the early part of the season.
"Bryant has proven that he can hit," Sperry said. "He has some power and he'll be in the middle of our order. He gives a good effort in the field and he's certainly a guy that we will count on from an offensive stand point."
Juniors Jeff Arbayo and Austin Pearce are also in the mix in the outfield and should see playing time. Both Arbayo and Pearce saw some action last season, with neither player making an error. Sperry would like to utilized Arbayo's left-handed bat and Pearce's switch hitting capabilities this spring.
Newcomer Craig Smith, who comes to The Bluff via Lower Columbia CC, and returner Kyle Haskin are both sophomores who will compete for time in the outfield.
"Craig might be our fastest runner," notes Sperry. "He's a very smart player and we could definitely use his speed in the line up."
Sperry says he likes the left-handed bat of Haskin, who saw limited time in the line-up during his redshirt-freshman campaign. Haskin is also still learning to play the outfield after a switch from the Pilot infield.
Rounding out the mix are two freshmen who could begin the season in the starting line-up. With two seniors ahead of him on the depth chart last spring, Garrett Queen utilized his redshirt season. Sperry points to Queen's approach at the plate as one of his strengths.
"He's got a really good swing," said Sperry. "It's simple and short, allowing him to hit backspin line drives. He's a pretty good runner and his arm strength is improving. We're excited about him."
Kramer Scott is a true freshman out of Edmonds, Wash. Scott hits from the left side of the plate, which Sperry likes.
"Kramer has a great looking swing," Sperry said. "He's going to be a strong, physical player. He's a good defender because he gets good jumps and good reads in the outfield."
"We've been fortunate to have Rocky at UP," Sperry said. "He's a very strong defender and his bat continues to improve. He can catch, he can throw and he can work with the pitching staff. Rocky is a very good player."
Should Rocky ever need a day off, newcomer Beau Fraser is ready. Sperry says Fraser, a true freshman out of Aptos, Calif., is solid behind the plate and steady with the bat. Fraser is also in the running to spend some time in Portland's line-up as the DH.
"Beau has exceeded every expectation offensively," Sperry said. "He might be our best hitter right now. He's going to be a good player for us and he is capable of stepping in right away at catcher."
Over at first base, seniors Chase Powell and Cort Carpenter are both making a case to be the starter in Portland's opening day line-up. Powell, a powerful left-handed hitter, enters his fourth year on The Bluff a career .279 hitter. He also has six career long flies and hit a career-best .321 as a sophomore.
"It's nice to have a left-handed hitter with that kind of power," Sperry said of Powell.
Carpenter is in his second season with the Pilots after transferring into the program. Carpenter is a right-hander who didn't make an error in 85 chances as a junior.
"Cort has a powerful bat and we need him to perform this season," said Sperry, who also notes that both Powell and Carpenter will be utilized in the designated hitter spot.
Moving around the infield, a familiar face re-surfaces at second base. After playing most of the first half of his freshman campaign at second, sophomore Riley Henricks moved over to the shortstop position. Sperry says with the addition of freshman Kris Kauppila to the roster, Henricks can move back to second base, where Sperry says the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American is more comfortable.
Henricks was the only Pilot to start all 54 games last season, had a 15-game hitting streak, during which he hit .446 (29-for-65) and he hit a team-high.333 during conference play.
"We're thrilled with Riley's success last season," Sperry said. "He's got a compact body that can hit for average, and he's obviously got some power. We'll look to Riley to provide some leadership as a sophomore."
Redshirt junior Charlie Herche is back to provide a veteran presence in the infield. Herche has appeared in 38 games during his career, mainly at second base.
Kauppila is in his first season at UP and hails from Glendale, Calif. Sperry is excited to welcome the shortstop to the program.
"He's got some skills," added Sperry. "He's got a little bit of flash in his game. He can pick it, he's got a strong arm and he's competitive at the plate. I like him a lot."
Another guy in the mix at short is sophomore Matt Mardesich, who saw some action at second last season. Sperry envisions Mardesich seeing the field at third, short or second. Junior C.J. Cullen is an experienced infielder who has started 63 games at shortstop in his two years on The Bluff.
Sperry says third base is still up for grabs. In the mix are junior Clayton Shaw and sophomore Kevin Armijo, who both started at the position last season. Shaw led the team last year with a .371 average against left-handed pitchers, while Armijo had 41 hits and 16 RBI's.
"Clayton will make the play and put the ball in play," said Sperry. "He'll give you a competitive at-bat and he's not going to go down easy.
"Kevin is a great kid that had some key hits for us in some clutch situations as a freshman. I like him a lot."
Sophomore Tyler Thompson, who made 17 appearances on the hill and 16 starts in the outfield during the 2008 season, played the corner position in high school and should see some time at third base this year.
"With the depth of our pitching staff, it might free Tyler up to do some things offensively and defensively," Sperry said. "With some uncertainty at third base, he's definitely in the mix. He's got a strong arm and he wants to play."
True freshman Kyle Kraus, who Sperry says can play anywhere, will make an immediate impact for the Pilots this season, both on the mound and in the infield. The brother of Bryant and the cousin of Austin Pearce, Kyle comes to UP after a successful career at West Linn High School in West Linn, Ore.
"This guy is a full-on competitor wherever you put him," Sperry said. "You could out him anywhere on the field and he'll be serviceable."
Each part of the right-handed trio stands at least 6-foot-5, with Lange coming in at a towering 6-7. Triolo spent time as Portland's No. 1 starter last year and picked up a win against eventual national champ Fresno State.
"Mark is one of our horses," Sperry said. "He will probably start the season as our No. 1 because he got to pitch in a lot of big games last year. He's got a good breaking ball and plenty of velocity."
Lange is a work-horse who can start or come out of the pen. Last season, he struck out 36 and walked just 10 in 41.0 innings of work. Sperry says Lange can throw all three of his pitches for strikes and that "he'll learn from his experiences last year."
Thorpe, Sperry notes, has a good change-up and knows how to pitch.
"He can mix up his speeds and he's alert," said Sperry. "I like his composure on the mound. He doesn't melt down easily."
Behind the big three is a stable of capable arms, allowing Sperry and pitching coach Larry Casian the option to go several different directions throughout the season.
"In the past, we might ride a guy two innings or so longer than we really should have," noted Sperry. "I think this year's staff gives us the opportunity, if we choose, to let our starter go until he gives up a couple of runs. After we go to the pen, we may only let their hitters face a guy one time. We might throw four guys in a game so the hitters never get in a rhythm with a particular pitcher. I think we have that ability with this staff."
Sophomores Scott Burris, a lefty, and Zach Varce, a righty, return after playing key roles for the Pilots during their freshman campaigns. Burris tied for second on the team with 26 appearances, all out of the bullpen. He finished with two saves, a 1-3 record and an ERA of 4.36, while holding opposing hitters to a staff-best .260 average. Burris averaged 8.2 strikeouts and 1.9 walks per nine innings for a team-best strikeout-walk ratio of 4.3.
"Scotty is a competitor," Sperry said of Burris, who could start or come out of the pen. "He's going to throw his stuff for strikes. I've always liked him coming out of the bullpen because of his competitiveness. If there are guys on base, you still have a chance to get out of the inning with him because he can get you out of a jam."
As a freshman, Varce made 26 appearances out of the bullpen. He went 2-0 with one save, struck out 34 in 32.0 innings for an average of 9.56 K's per nine innings and held right-handed hitters to a .220 batting average.
"He has very good stuff," said Sperry. "I like his curve ball and his split finger. He can be very good and he should be one of our better pitchers."
Also available are junior right-hander Tommy Renda, junior left-hander Ed Wakefield and sophomore righties Ben Pressler and Ben Panther, who all have ample amounts of experience. Pressler has switched to a side-arm delivery and Panther returns after missing last season with an injury.
"Our staff has depth," continued Sperry. "You don't get to that sixth guy and tumble talent-wise, and we're very excited about that."
One downside is the loss of sophomore Owen Jones to season-ending Tommy John surgery. Jones was expected to pitch and play in the outfield this season.
New to the mix are Kraus, redshirt freshman Keeler Brynteson and sophomore transfer Brent Miller. Sperry says Miller, a right-hander from Bellevue CC, has "really good stuff".
Brynteson is a lefty who has been what Sperry calls arguably one of the brightest surprises on the roster.
"He's got a slider that buries inside on the wrists of right-handers, and that's huge," said Sperry. "If he continues to do what he has shown us so far, he'll pitch significantly."
Sperry says Kraus "goes right at you" and that he throws all of his pitches for strikes. He can mix his speeds and stay in the zone and Sperry likes his competitive streak.
Thompson will certainly be available out of the pen for the Pilots when needed, as will redshirt sophomore Nick Bankus.
THE OVERALL OUTLOOK
Obviously, the strengths of this team are pitching and defense. The offense is improving, but Sperry notes that it'll be tough to replace the 15 home runs belted by departed senior Danny Meier last season.
"Last year, perhaps our best opportunity to score runs was to get a walk and have Meier run one out of the house," Sperry said. "We may run an offense this year that gives guys the opportunity to hit a single with someone in scoring position. We may bunt more this year. We may hit-and-run more this year. We may be a little more aggressive on the bases to force more errors, and I think that's an exciting style of baseball."
In order to do that, Sperry goes back to improving the mental make-up of this team.
"It might sound elementary, but we need to play the game mentally strong enough to where we have to be able to not see the guy standing on second base," said Sperry. "We need to see the baseball and hit it. Staying strong mentally is a huge key."
Sperry and Casian, who are in their third year together on the Portland coaching staff, welcome first-year coach Tucker Brack to the bench this season. Brack comes from Lower Columbia CC and had a stellar career playing ball at Western Oregon.
"We're excited to have Tucker on board," said Sperry. "He came highly recommended from some baseball people who are close to me that I trust. He's been around the game his whole life. He's got a good mind for coaching and he does a great job."
With the coaching staff in place and the season upon us, Sperry says his team is prepared. He says the Pilots are ready to take on the rigors of a 56-game schedule covering more than three months, while not overcomplicating things.
"I would expect us to be a team that is prepared and to play hard and to hustle," continues Sperry. "I expect us to throw strikes, play catch and do the things we're capable of doing."