ARLINGTON — After graduating approximately two-thirds of its pitching from last season, the Arlington baseball team entered this spring with uncertainty surrounding its rotation.
The Eagles had high expectations for returning sophomore Owen Bishop, who was one of the team’s top pitchers during last year’s run to the Class 3A state quarterfinals.
But the rest of the rotation was a bit of an unknown.
“We had a lot of question marks coming into the season (about) who was going to pick up innings after Owen,” Arlington coach Scott Striegel said.
The emergence of junior Cameron Smith and freshman Jacob Burkett answered those questions in resounding fashion.
Smith and Burkett have teamed with Bishop to form a standout pitching trio that’s propelled the Eagles (16-1 overall, 15-0 Wesco 3A) to a perfect record in league play.
Heading into Thursday’s game, the three right-handed hurlers had a combined 1.68 earned-run average and .188 opponents’ batting average. Arlington had allowed just 2.6 runs per game, nearly an entire run less than the next-closest Wesco 3A team.
“Pitching is probably the most important part of baseball,” Eagles junior catcher Jack Sheward said. “And I couldn’t be happier with (our) three starting pitchers.”
Bishop has continued his success after last year’s strong freshman campaign, when he recorded a 1.00 ERA while tossing the second-most innings on the team.
The hard-throwing sophomore, whose fastball hovers around 85 mph, has posted a 2.50 ERA in 33 2/3 innings this spring, striking out 33 batters and walking eight. He had a rough first outing of the season, but has a 1.48 ERA over his other six appearances.
“Owen probably throws the hardest in (Wesco 3A),” Snohomish coach Nick Hammons said. “He’s probably the best college prospect in our league. He’s got the highest ceiling, from what I’ve seen. … If he continues to get better, he’s got a good chance of playing major college baseball.”
Smith, who pitched only one inning at the varsity level last year, is enjoying a breakout junior campaign after dedicating himself to Arlington’s offseason throwing program.
“He really attacked the throwing program,” Striegel said. “He did it religiously, every day of the week.”
The results are evident this season, both on the radar gun and stat sheet.
After sitting around 73-75 mph last year, Smith now has a low-80s fastball to go along with a devastating curveball.
“Cameron Smith has the best curveball in the league,” Hammons said. “And he can throw it in any count.”
With improved velocity, Smith has a 1.12 ERA in 37 2/3 innings pitched this season. He limits opponents to a .179 batting average. He has 35 strikeouts and just six walks.
And he’s tossed three consecutive complete games, including a no-hitter in an April 6 win over Shorecrest.
“Cameron has always had a really good breaking ball,” Striegel said. “But because of that throwing program, he probably gained 8-10 mph since last year. … With that added velocity, it made him way tougher to hit.”
Yet while Bishop and Smith gave Arlington a formidable 1-2 punch, the Eagles were still searching for a third starter several weeks into the season.
They found their answer after an injury forced Burkett into action.
After beginning the season on the junior-varsity team, the freshman entered in relief during the first inning of a March 21 varsity game against Marysville Getchell. Making just his second career varsity appearance, Burkett tossed six innings of one-hit ball, striking out 10 batters and walking just two.
“He got thrown into the fire with no outs in the first inning, and threw so well that there was no taking him out,” Striegel said. “You just had to continue to ride it, and we have continued to just let him go. He’s taken that opportunity and run with it.”
Burkett has a 1.44 ERA in 24 1/3 innings and yields a .185 opponents’ batting average. He has recorded 31 strikeouts and nine walks while helping solidify Arlington’s rotation.
“They’ve both really stepped up,” Bishop said of Smith and Burkett. “They’ve both done amazing jobs. It’s been really cool to watch.”
The three pitchers have a combined 4.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio, averaging less than one walk every four innings. That follows Arlington’s mantra of attacking the strike zone, a pitching philosophy the coaching staff emphasizes.
“Having a pitch count the last (two) years, you have to work ahead and stick around in ballgames,” Striegel said. “A five-, six- or seven-pitch strikeout is great. But (with a) first- or second-pitch groundball to the second baseman, you’re on to the next hitter.
“And (getting that) a few times throughout the game might be the difference in you going another inning.”
Bishop, Smith and Burkett have consistently pitched deep into games for the Eagles, accounting for all but 15 1/3 of the team’s 111 innings pitched.
“Because our starters have been so good, we haven’t had to throw a bunch of other guys,” Striegel said.
Arlington’s pitchers said their team’s defense also plays an important role in their success.
“When I step on the mound, I just feel good (knowing) I’ve got a team behind me that’s going to back me up, whatever situation it is,” Smith said. “And when you have that confidence, it (helps) you to go right at the hitter.”
Along with a high-scoring offense that averages 8.3 runs per game, the trio of Bishop, Smith and Burkett has the Eagles rolling through Wesco 3A and striving for a third consecutive trip to the state tournament.
“As you get to the postseason, you have to rely on (pitching),” Striegel said. “So I’m excited to see it. … If we play like we can play, I really like our chances.”