By Aaron Lommers Herald Writer
BOTHELL — A season ago, the Lynnwood baseball team won just three games. The Royals already have surpassed that total in 2014 after winning their first four contests.
But the goals of the players and coaches extend much further than that.
“I do feel that this team is definitely a playoff contending team this year,” Lynnwood head coach Adam Villalobos said. “We play good defense and we don’t make a lot of mistakes there. As of right now, we’re pitching it pretty well, so I think that’s definitely a good recipe for a playoff team.”
That may sound like hyperbole for a program that won a combined nine games over the two previous seasons, but this year feels different to Villalobos and his team.
Danny Hawkins, an assistant coach for the Lynnwood football team, started an offseason workout program after the Thanksgiving break and the players bought in. According to Villalobos, offseason workouts used to draw just 5-10 baseball players. This year’s workout drew 20-30.
The result has been a noticeable increase in the strength of the players, which has led to more productive at-bats and more runs. In three of their first five games, the Royals scored at least seven runs, including a 20-run outburst against Everett.
“The guys at the plate were on that day,” Villalobos said. “We hit a lot of gap-shots and a lot of doubles. Our pitching was pretty good that day and we played good defense. We didn’t come out flat. The guys just had good approaches. It was just one of those days where a lot of the guys had a lot of confidence at the plate and they looked very comfortable.”
So far this season, the Royals have a team batting average of .385 and a .478 on-base percentage. Four of the team’s starters are hitting better than .500 and the two with the highest averages are freshmen.
Kyler McMahan leads the team with a .588 average and three RBI through five games. He was hitting .714 before going 0-for-3 in a 9-1 loss to Jackson this past Thursday — the Royals’ lone loss of the season.
“He’s been lights out hitting,” Villalobos said. “The kid battles and he’s a great kid. He gets up there and he wants it.”
Villalobos put McMahon in the ninth spot in the batting order at the beginning of the season, but after a 3-for-3 performance against Glacier Peak in the first game, the coach quickly moved him up to the No. 3 hole.
“He’s a young kid, but he’s one of our leaders, I think,” Villalobos said. “I think a lot of the older guys kind of feed off him (because of) the way he goes about his business. It’s definitely not like he’s a freshman-type guy. It kind of feels like he’s an upperclassman, like he has that experience.”
Fellow freshman Jared Whitman is second on the team with a .583 batting average. He has four RBI and two doubles.
As good as Whitman has been at the plate, his biggest contribution has come on the mound. He has pitched in relief in two games, picking up the win in both, and hasn’t allowed an earned run.
Whitman hasn’t played since March 26 after taking a line drive off the chest in practice. He is expected to miss another 1-3 weeks, but Villalobos said he will step into the starting rotation when he returns.
“He throws a lot of strikes,” Villalobos said. “He throws two or three pitches for strikes consistently. He was kind of a surprise too, because we started him out on the JV team. I kept watching him during the practices and I was like, ‘I think I made a mistake here. He needs to be over on the big team.’”
With the Royals down seven runs against Glacier Peak, Whitman entered the game and pitched five scoreless innings. With Whitman holding the Grizzlies’ bats in check, the Royals were able to pull off a 9-8 comeback win.
“It definitely showed us something,” Villalobos said. “He’s a young kid and he loves to compete. You’ve got to keep giving him a shot against these teams if he’s going to keep throwing the way he’s throwing.”
Villalobos said his team’s victory over Glacier Peak was a good building block because the Royals’ didn’t give up even when the outcome looked bleak.
“They didn’t panic,” he said. “(Lynnwood) teams in the past would have kind of gave up and put their tail between their legs, but this team didn’t. We chipped away.”
Though the Royals started 4-0, none of those victories were league games. They opened the Wesco 4A portion of their schedule this past Thursday by losing to Jackson. The league season is scheduled to continue today with the first of a three-game series against Edmonds-Woodway, which should be a good indicator of just how competitive the Royals will be this season.
“(The Warriors) compete and they’ve got guys over there that can hit and they’ve got guys that can pitch,” Villalobos said. “They’re a good ball club. Hopefully we’ll match (up) with them pretty well. We’ve just got to show up and play our game and I think we’ll be OK.”
It’s that kind of confidence the Royals lacked in the past, but there is no doubt they have it this season.
“We’re definitely more committed,” junior infielder Carson Hoerner said. “We just know we’ve got a good team this year and next year we’ll have the same team. I’m looking forward to a good year.”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.