Season Outlook: Bearcats Ready for Start of 2007 Baseball Season

SALEM, ORE. -- The 2007 Bearcats return a significant portion of their 2006 squad that featured a large number of underclassmen. Returning senior starters Kelly Gilmore, Matt Rasmussen, and Grant Yamaguchi will lead a young group of players into the season. Willamette will start three seniors, two juniors and four sophomores on the field to begin the season. The team has shown a relentless work ethic in practice and Head Coach Matt Allison calls it the “funnest group on the field” in his 19 years coaching at the collegiate level. With only five seniors graduating at the end of the 2007 season, there is optimism that the Bearcat baseball team will be able to build a solid reputation over the next several years.

Allison, now in his fourth season at Willamette, hopes to guide the Bearcats to a top-half finish in the Northwest Conference standings this spring. WU has the potential to challenge the top teams in the conference and will have a great chance to do so when the Bearcats host defending champion George Fox University in a three-game series Mar. 3-4. The series with GFU begins a stretch in which Willamette will play 10 of 13 games at home.

The Bearcats are scheduled to open the season on Saturday, Feb. 10 with a double-header against Lewis & Clark College at Tigard HS in Tigard, Ore. Willamette’s home schedule begins with the George Fox series three weeks later. Last year, the Bearcats were 17-19 overall, including 11-13 in the NWC. The following paragraphs provide a position-by-position look at Willamette’s 2007 baseball team.

Unlike the 2006 season, this year’s group of pitchers returns a wealth of experience. Juniors Tye Sundlee and Clint Moran will anchor the pitching staff. Sundlee tied for the team lead with four wins, led the Bearcats with 68 2/3 innings pitched and ranked first on the team with 51 strikeouts last season. He earned a complete-game victory against Pacific University in Willamette’s 9-1 win on Mar. 18. Moran, the Bearcats’ lone southpaw starter, was needed in several roles last season, but will be called upon to give quality innings as a starter this year. Moran had quality outings against Occidental and Whitworth in 2006.

One of the strengths of the Bearcat baseball team this season is junior closer Matt Bicocca. Bicocca set a Willamette single season record with six saves a year ago to lead the Northwest Conference. During the football season, Bicocca is WU’s starting place-kicker and Moran is the team’s top punter.

Sophomore right-hander Kelsey Nakata was another valuable member of last season’s bullpen. Nakata was 3-0, while posting a 2.31 ERA in his freshman campaign. He will be called upon to get big outs late in the game again this season.

Another key contributor in 2007 will be sophomore Jarrid Summers. He appeared in eight games last season and held opponents to a miniscule .212 batting average. Other returning members on the 2007 pitching staff are junior Ryan Smith and sophomores Jimmy Meuel and Tim Mitchell. Smith started 2 mid-week games in 2006 to gain valuable experience that will help him this season. Meuel achieved a 0.00 ERA in just two innings pitched in 2006, but gained valuable innings during the junior varsity season. Mitchell also was a strong contributor to the junior varsity squad last season. Freshman who will contribute valuable innings immediately are right-handers Scott Martin and Joe Penkala and left-hander Stephen Lane.

The Willamette pitching staff has worked extremely hard in the off-season. Its success will be determined by the ability of each pitcher to maintain control and to throw strikes consistently.

For the second straight season the Bearcats will need to replace their starting catcher from the previous year. The duo competing for the starting job in 2007 are sophomore Dan Maslanik and freshman Zach Kimball. Maslanik had only eight varsity at bats as a freshman, but caught almost every inning of the junior varsity season. He has improved significantly since stepping onto campus. Kimball, a talented freshman from Mesa, Ariz., impressed coaches with his efforts during fall practice.

Coach Allison believes the strongest part of the 2007 Bearcat team will be its infield defense. Returning senior shortstop Matt Rasmussen will anchor the defense. Rasmussen batted .268 in 2006, before suffering an injury against Pacific after playing in just 18 games.

Sophomore David Tufo started half of the Bearcats’ games at third base last season. He batted .260 and played a solid “hot corner”.

Graduated senior Matt Johnson started every game at second base in 2006. He will be replaced by sophomore Ellis Webster, who started 15 games at shortstop a year ago. The coaches feel the double play combination of Rasmussen and Webster might be the best in the conference this season.

Senior Grant Yamaguchi and sophomore Kyle Stalker will man first base. Yamaguchi started in 33 games in 2006, batting .300 for the Bearcats with five home runs. He was nominated for NWC Offensive Player of the Week for the performances in the series against the University of Puget Sound. Stalker was one of two Bearcat players who ranked nationally in offensive categories in 2006. Stalker hit nine home runs in 28 games to finish ninth in the country with 0.32 homers per game. He also batted .309 and was tied for the team lead with 32 RBIs.

Providing valuable depth in the infield will be senior Ryan Peterson, junior Kiel Wood, and sophomores Jack McGee, Kirk Struble, and Emilio Solano. Third baseman Andrew Ross is the lone freshman infielder for the Bearcats in 2007.

Senior Kelly Gilmore and junior Sean Anderson started every game last season in the outfield for Willamette. Gilmore led the team in hitting at .333 and on-base percentage at .515. He also had the unique distinction of leading the country in walks per game at the NCAA Division III level, after recording 44 walks in 36 games (1.22 walks per game). Anderson will once again man center field, after batting .262 and tying for the team lead with 29 runs scored.

The most competitive position this fall was left field, where junior Colin Young, senior Ty Eriksen, and sophomore Colin Clark battled for the job. All three played platoon roles in 2006, but were able to improve significantly thanks to last years JV schedule.

Also providing strong depth in the outfield will be sophomore Jordan Roberts. A diligent worker, Roberts was a late-inning defensive specialist in 2006. Freshmen James Perez and Tony Krikorian, both members of the Willamette football team, will give the Bearcats quality speed off the bench.