SEATTLE — The road to Safeco Field has become a familiar one for University of Washington junior pitcher Aaron West, who’s pitched there in four of the past five seasons and is scheduled to be on the mound again when the Huskies play UCLA there on Friday night.
But when it comes to being on the proverbial road to Omaha, the UW baseball program has been stuck in the driveway for far too long.
So one can forgive West, the Huskies’ ace pitcher and one of the top starters in the Pacific-12 Conference, if he’s got more on his mind than being on the same mound where Felix Hernandez spends many a summer evening.
Playing at Safeco is secondary — for once — as West and the red-hot Huskies (26-18) find themselves in the rare position as an NCAA tournament contender. Three games against 11th-ranked UCLA (31-13) this weekend could go a long way toward UW’s postseason push.
“We’re definitely not for sure in, but we’re right on the brink,” said catcher/designated hitter Chase Anselment, a junior and former Meadowdale High School star. “Every game is like a must-win — I shouldn’t say must-win; that puts a lot of pressure on. But they’re definitely all important.”
For West and Anselment, who are two major reasons for a UW turnaround from last year’s 17-37 disaster, this season has been all about finding their confidence again. Both players struggled in 2011, then had breakout offseasons playing in collegiate summer leagues. And they’ve carried it over to the Pac-12 season.
“It was easy to pitch down there,” West said of his summer stint pitching with the Humboldt (Calif.) Crabs of the Far West League. “It just helped a lot.”
West allowed just one run in 54 innings with Humboldt, going 7-0 with an ERA of 0.17 this summer. After spending his 2011 college season struggling to come back from elbow surgery and posting a 1-8 record and 5.18 ERA, he has found his stride this spring.
His 2.55 ERA ranks 10th in the Pac-12, and West hasn’t allowed a run in either of his past two starts. Stretching back to an April 24 relief appearance against Portland, he’s thrown 161/3 consecutive scoreless innings over three games. He pitched a complete-game shutout, allowing four hits, in a win at USC last Friday night. His last two starts earned him rare back-to-back honors as the UW athletic department’s student-athlete of the week.
Not only is he leading the UW staff, but West has also turned up on the radar for next month’s major league draft.
Last week, the mild-mannered West summed up his return to prominence as: “Being healthy and just getting my confidence back. I’m starting to pitch like I can pitch again.”
His most important game may well come Friday, when he goes against the Bruins at Safeco Field. It will be somewhat familiar territory for West, who pitched at Safeco in the 2007 and 2008 state tournaments — he pitched a two-hit shutout in the 2008 4A state championship game to lead Snohomish to the title — and has started the past two times UW played a game there when he was healthy.
“I love it,” said West, who missed most of the 2010 season after having surgery in April of that year. “It’s a big park, throw strikes and just get after it.”
West was admittedly nervous in his first start at Safeco, allowing two walks and a hit during a state tournament game his junior year at Snohomish. But he fanned the final two batters in the inning to leave the bases loaded, went on to pitch a shutout, and has continued to have success at the venue.
By the time he took the mound for a game against Oregon State last May, West felt as comfortable at Safeco as he does at just about any stadium — high school, college or pro.
“It felt good,” he said of last year’s short trip to Safeco Field in downtown Seattle. “I was back where I wanted to be. I just enjoyed the atmosphere.”
Anselment has also found his game again after spending part of his summer playing competitively. His stint with the Brewster Whitecaps of the Cape Cod League not only helped Anselment make the transition to catcher, but it also allowed him to get back into an offensive groove. A .245 batting average last season has been all but forgotten now that he’s hitting .326 to rank second on the team.
“Everyone has that one season. Last year was mine,” he said of his 2011 struggles. “I got off to a bad start, and I couldn’t really find where I needed to be. This year’s been a lot different. It’s helped having the guys around me.”
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the 2011 season, for both West and Anselment, was the freefall in which the team found itself on the way to a 17-37 record and the program’s fourth consecutive non-winning season.
“We just didn’t have the right guys last year,” Anselment said. “The attitude of the team was different. They weren’t here for the right reason. But this year, it’s been completely different. The guys are more focused. We all know where we want to be at the end of the season, and that’s Omaha. Last year, it wasn’t that way.”
Omaha, the site of the College World Series, is a long-shot for this year’s Huskies. But they can feel better knowing that at least it’s still a mathematical possibility. With four straight wins, seven victories in its last eight games, and an RPI ranking of No. 42 in the nation, UW baseball appears back on track and headed in the right direction.
“We all want to win,” West said. “We all want to go to regionals; that’s why we’re here. I’m not saying it wasn’t like that last year, but this year everyone’s pushing each other for that one goal.”