When Keith Ward took over the Whitworth College baseball program this spring, he found his roster bulging with experienced position players capable of putting up big offensive numbers.
What he didn’t find were pitchers.
And that, more than anything, explains the Pirates’ sluggish start under Ward, a former prep standout at Lewis and Clark who played collegiately for the team he now coaches.
Whitworth opens an important three-game weekend series against Pacific Lutheran with a noon doubleheader at Merkel Field today. The Pirates are 6-7 overall and 4-3 in the NCIC after last weekend’s doubleheader loss to defending conference champion George Fox.
The Pirates are hitting .306 as a team and averaging more than eight runs a game. They have seven regulars batting over .300 and boast a lofty team slugging average of .494.
But they are not getting it done on the mound, where senior right-hander Jason Tracy is the only starting pitcher with an earned run average less than 7.50.
“We’re a typical NCIC team with a bunch of really good hitters,” explained Ward, who inherited a team that finished 18-21 overall and 16-7 in conference play under Rod Taylor last spring. “But the teams that win in our league are the teams that get the best pitching, and right now, we’re struggling with ours.
“Our team ERA is over 8.00 and we’re still a .500 team. If we knock our ERA down about three points, we’re probably a 9-4 team or a 10-3 team.”
The Pirates lost four pitchers to graduation, leaving Tracy as the only experienced starter. The former Colville prep star has been solid this spring, winning two of his four starts and striking out a team-high 20 batters in 27-plus innings. Sophomore Scott Yoshihara has been effective in relief, holding opponents to just four earned runs in 12-plus innings, but the pitching consistency stops there.
Ward’s other top two starters, juniors Rich Click and Kevin Darling, both sport double-figure ERAs and have struggled with their control.
That’s understandable, though, Ward says, because both were relief specialists last season at Community Colleges of Spokane.
“They’re both good athletes who are doing the best they can,” Ward said of his two transfers. “They were both bullpen people who had never been starters, but we had to turn them into starters because of all the pitchers we lost to graduation.
“What they both usually do is throw four or five good innings and then have one really bad inning. It’s just something we have to work on.”
Offensively, the Pirates have been led by first baseman/designated hitter Tim Bishop, who is batting .343 with four home runs and 18 runs batted in. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound senior has struck out a team-high 12 times, but boasts a .743 slugging percentage.
Third baseman Jack Arthaud and shortstop Miguel Saldin, who anchor the defense, are hitting .400 and .364, respectively. Sophomore catcher Sam Chimienti went 2 for 4 with a home run and three RBIs in his first game back last weekend after suffering a broken hand during the off-season.
“It doesn’t matter where we’re playing, we seem to hit the ball pretty well,” Ward said. “We just need to get some better pitching and get on a winning streak where we can establish ourselves, hopefully, as being among the top teams in our league.”
Ward said he considers George Fox and Willamette the favorites in this year’s NCIC title chase.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHITWORTH FAST FACTS Coach: Keith Ward - 6-7 overall (1st year); same at Whitworth. 1997 record: 18-21 overall, 16-7 in NCIC, 4th. 1998 record to date: 6-7 overall; 4-3 in NCIC. Top returnees: 1B Tim Bishop, SS Miguel Saldin, INF Jack Arthaud, OF Jason Francek, C Sam Chimienti, P Scott Yoshihara, P Jason Tracy, P Darin Radke. Top newcomers: P Kevin Daling, C Mark Miller, P Rich Click. 1998 outlook: As usual, Whitworth’s roster is loaded with veteran position players who can mash the baseball. But if the Pirates hope to improve on last year’s fourth-place finish in the NCIC, first year coach Keith Ward must rebuild a pitching staff that was devastated by graduation.