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Originally published Friday, February 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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UW Baseball | Coach Knutson says Huskies can compete for Pac-10 title

Coach Ken Knutson thinks Washington's baseball team, despite not reaching the NCAA tournament in the past four seasons, is capable of surprising people and competing for a Pac-10 title.

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Pac-10 baseball coaches forecast Washington to finish ninth in the newly expanded conference, which added Oregon.

The prediction elicits a shrug from UW coach Ken Knutson on the eve of his 17th season with the Huskies, which begins tonight at Fresno State, 2008's surprise Division I champion.

Knutson thinks Washington, despite not reaching the NCAA tournament in the past four seasons, is capable of surprising people.

"I realistically think we have a chance to compete for the conference championship," he said.

The Huskies finished 33-22 last year and tied for sixth in the Pac-10 (11-13). In 2009 Knutson believes pitching, defense and experience will be team strengths, along with more offensive pop in a lineup that includes third-team All-American left fielder Kyle Conley (.337 average and 19 home runs in 2008).

"I like our team a lot," said Knutson. "We've basically got all our pitching, 75 percent of our innings, back from last year. We were second in the league [in earned-run average, 4.15] and right up there among the national leaders.

"We're going to be good defensively, and we've got some juice in the lineup," he said. "I'm excited."

Of UW's 10 returning pitchers, three are seniors: Jorden Merry (2008 first-team All-Pac-10; 8-2 and seventh in Pac-10 ERA, 3.61) and Jason Erickson, both right-handers, and lefty Tyler Cheney.

Two sophomore left-handers are also getting a long look as starters: Geoff Brown and Adrian Gomez. Gomez last pitched for UW in 2006 but is back after a two-year church mission.

"Statistically, Adrian's our best guy right now," Knutson said. "We've got a lot of confidence in him."

Sophomore righty Cam Nobles (6-4 last year) returns after breaking his pitching arm late last season. He ranked ninth in the Pac-10 in ERA (3.74) in 2008. The projected closer is sophomore righty Brian Pearl, a left-side infielder last year.

Conley, junior, and sophomore first baseman Troy Scott (.260, seven HRs last year) will be UW's 3-4 hitters.

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Third baseman Aaron Russell (.351 in 37 games last year) and outfielder Ty Rasmussen (.291 in 46 games), both juniors, are candidates to bat fifth. (Rasmussen will miss a few weeks while an injury mends.) Last year the Huskies ranked next to last in the Pac-10 in hitting (.282).

"We're going to pitch and play defense very well," Knutson said. "We're literally two-deep at every position. We have to get our bullpen in shape, but I don't remember a year having this much pitching coming back. It's going to be a difference-maker for us."

Notes

• UW's home opener: March 3 vs. Oregon (nonleague). The Pac-10 opener: March 27 at Stanford. The Pac-10 home opener: April 3 vs. Arizona State, one of two games tentatively scheduled for Safeco Field. The other: May 8 vs. Oregon State.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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