Given the rivalry between the two schools, a three-game weekend series between the Washington and Oregon baseball teams that opens tonight was certain to produce plenty of excitement anyway.
But this will be no ordinary showdown between the Huskies and Ducks. Both teams are nationally ranked and chasing a Pacific-12 Conference championship with the 8-1 Huskies in first place, two games ahead of 6-3 Oregon, which is tied with Oregon State and UCLA for second place.
“Like every weekend in our conference, I’m expecting three one-run games and three games decided in the ninth inning,” UW head coach Lindsay Meggs said. “It’s just the way this league has been since I’ve been in it.
“The University of Oregon has done a great job all season long. They’re nationally ranked so these are important games for both of us. We’re going to have our hands full, that’s for sure.”
Likewise, Oregon must contend with a UW team that is likely the hottest club in college baseball. Washington started its season slowly, losing four of its first eight games with one tie, but then ran off seven straight victories. After dropping their Pac-12 opener at Arizona State on March 14, the Huskies have since run off 10 straight wins, including league sweeps of Arizona and USC the last two weekends.
“It’s kind of been a perfect storm in that we’ve pitched, we’ve played quality defense and we’ve swung the bats about as well as we can,” Meggs said. As a coach, he went on, “you’re always hoping to have one part of your game hitting at a high level. But we’ve been fortunate to have all three. And it’s just been a great month for us.”
Washington’s offense has been particularly potent in recent weeks. Six of the team’s eight Pac-12 wins were by three or more runs, and in last weekend’s road series the Huskies outscored the Trojans 35-9.
Leading the way at the plate has been senior first baseman/outfielder Brian Wolfe, a 2009 graduate of Snohomish High School. Last week Wolfe was named Pac-12 Player of the Week for the second time this season after batting .583 in four games (including a non-conference game vs. Gonzaga). In last Saturday’s 19-4 win over USC he had four hits including two home runs, with eight RBI and four runs scored.
“The last few weeks have obviously been good for us, statistically and record-wise,” Wolfe said. “But more importantly, it’s not just been one person. Everybody’s been contributing and we’re executing offensively with all the little things. … Everybody has bought in and we’re all working hard for the same goal.”
In 26 games, Wolfe has a .370 batting average that is tied for the team lead among regular starters. His four home runs and 21 RBI lead all players.
Wolfe is a fifth-year senior, “and like a lot of our team he’s been through a lot of ups and downs,” Meggs said. “He finally feels like it’s his turn and our turn. … He’s just got a quiet confidence.”
Another top contributor is right-handed relief pitcher Brandon Choate, a graduate of Mountlake Terrace High School and a junior transfer from Tacoma Community College. In six appearances this season, Choate has a 2-0 record with a 0.77 ERA. Opponents are batting just .100 against him.
Choate is part of a relief corps that has been a nice surprise for Meggs this season.
“Our bullpen was a big question for me,” he said. “I really thought we’d hit, I thought we’d roll out three quality starters, and we’ve played good defense the last two years. But I didn’t know if we had depth in our bullpen.
“But those guys have stepped up and that’s surprised me. It’s been really nice to see the way those guys have improved.”
In a conference preseason poll, the Huskies were picked to finish 10th
(Colorado does not have a baseball program). According to Wolfe, that perceived slight has been a big motivation for Washington this season.
“We’re playing with a chip on our shoulder every day,” he said. “We’re putting pressure on people, and when they give us a crack we try to kick the door open. … We’re seeing people step up and make plays, and that’s how you win games.”