UW pitcher overcomes dad's illness to lead team
As Nick Haughian threw a warmup pitch in the bullpen shortly before last Sunday's game at USC, he heard it. "My dad has a very distinct...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Baseball: Washington St. @ Washington, Husky Ballpark, 6:30 p.m.
As Nick Haughian threw a warmup pitch in the bullpen shortly before last Sunday's game at USC, he heard it.
"My dad has a very distinct whistle," said Haughian, a starting pitcher for Washington. "It's just a whistle, but I can tell — that's my dad."
What once was a call for dinner is now a signal that everything is all right.
A year ago, Haughian, a left-hander, took the mound during his sophomore season worried over the health of his father, Rick, who was diagnosed with bladder cancer midway through the season.
Now, with surgery for Rick Haughian a success and no sign of cancer in sight, Nick Haughian pitches free and easy, finally fulfilling the vast potential displayed during a stellar career at Marysville-Pilchuck High School.
Heading into a critical three-game home series this weekend against Washington State, Haughian (pronounced "Hoin") is a big reason the Huskies lead the Pac-10 in pitching, which in turn is a big reason UW has moved into third place in the conference after being picked last in the preseason coaches' poll.
Haughian is 5-4 and ranks fourth in the Pac-10 in earned-run average at 3.21 and leads the conference with 88 strikeouts.
"I feel like I've got command of all of my pitches," he said. "But the biggest thing is just being able to control my brain and really try to make the good stretches last a little longer and the bad stretches a little shorter."
Haughian, a first-team all-state high-school pick in 2005, appeared on his way to a breakthrough season last spring when he started out 3-2, capped by a seven-inning, three-run outing in a win against Arizona State.
But a few days after that he got a call from his dad that he said "was the most shocking thing I'd ever heard in my life."
Rick Haughian, 49, who thought maybe he was battling a case of kidney stones, was instead told he had an aggressive form of bladder cancer.
As his father says, "Nick's a very emotional kid."
And as UW coach Ken Knutson says, "He's very close to his father and his family," which includes a younger brother and three sisters.
So as Haughian tried to pitch through the uncertainty and concern over his father's illness, that 3-2 start devolved into a 4-7 final record. He finished with a 6.44 ERA and concluded the season pitching out of the bullpen.
"You can look it up on the calendar," Knutson said. "When his dad found out he had cancer is when he started to perform poorly."
Haughian said he thinks there might have been a little more at play, specifically, still trying to make the adjustment from high school to college. "It's such a big learning curve," he said.
But he doesn't deny the correlation.
"I wasn't really as focused, keeping my mental game on the mound as well as I had previously or since," he said.
Rick Haughian, a retired Air Force load master on C-141s who works at Boeing, had his bladder removed in June, followed by chemotherapy treatments. He has been cancer-free since, last getting an all-clear signal about a month ago.
"I used to say, 'I have bladder cancer,' "' he said. "Now I say, 'I had bladder cancer.'"
So when Nick Haughian takes the mound, he again sees the familiar presence of his father, who attends most UW games, home and away.
Haughian has combined with junior Jordan Merry and sophomore Cam Nobles to form one of the Pac-10's best rotations, highlighted by a complete-game, 15-strikeout win against Arizona at Safeco Field on April 4. Haughian, who has a fastball in the 91-mph range and an array of sliders and change-ups that keeps hitters off-guard, earned several national pitcher-of-the-week honors after that game.
Haughian hands a lot of credit to senior catcher Joey Dunn, to whom Knutson has taken the rare step of allowing to call pitches on his own.
"He knows as well, if not better than the pitcher, how his stuff is," Haughian said. "It's just been huge."
It has added up to a Huskies team that is 29-16 overall and 8-7 in Pac-10 play, behind only Arizona State (12-6) and Stanford (10-5). The Huskies made a big move last weekend with a three-game sweep at USC, a first for a UW team.
Haughian won the final game Sunday, allowing two hits and a run in five innings of an 11-4 victory. Rick Haughian hadn't expected to see it, having booked a flight out early Sunday when his son was initially penciled in for a Friday start.
But he changed plans, showing up shortly before the first pitch Sunday, letting his son know he was there with the comforting whistle.
"Once I learned things are going to be all right, it made it a lot easier to really, really focus on baseball," Nick Haughian said. "And just realize how lucky I am to even have the opportunity to do this."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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