LACEY – On most high school baseball pitching staffs, it’s slim pickings after the team’s top two starters.
But first-year Timberline coach Derek Weldon has a luxury most coaches would envy – a rotation of No. 1-quality starters.
Timberline’s three starting pitchers – Charlie Hinson, Ben Smith and Colin McCusker – have a combined 17-1 record this spring, and reliever Chase Wasson has seven saves.
“I feel like I could start any of these guys and be able to compete,” Weldon said. “They’re in the zone, and get pretty quick outs. It’s been good.”
The strength of the pitching – with a blend of two southpaws, a hard-throwing right-hander and a sidearmer – is a big reason why the eighth-ranked Blazers (18-2) clinched the 3A Narrows League title two weeks before the end of the regular season. They are a No. 1 seed going into their West Central/Southwest bi-district tournament game against Kelso, a 3-0 winner over Hazen Tuesday, at 7 p.m. today at Auburn Mountainview High School.
Good things come to those who throw strikes. The Blazers’ mound depth has been on display all season, and was defined during a nine-game stretch from March 26 to April 22 when they allowed only four runs and had five shutouts. They also swept second-place Capital (11-1 and 4-0) and third-place Wilson (3-0, 5-1) and are on a 16-game winning streak. Their last loss came against Class 4A Puyallup, 11-3, on March 17.
“I didn’t know (pitching) was going to be as strong as it’s been this far,” Weldon said. “The guys were dialed in.”
In no way does their friendly competition cause dissension; they thrive off their friendship and the healthy competition. For the first month of the season, Smith and left-handers Hinson and McCusker were on a 70-75-pitch limit to save their arms for the postseason. By securing the No. 1 seed going into the district tournament, Timberline earned a first-round bye and heads into tonight’s district game one win away from earning its third regional tournament berth in five years.
“If you’re not having your best outing, you can count on one of them to come in and back you up,” Hinson said.
“We push each other every day,” Wasson said. “We still have fun, but we’re still practicing hard and doing everything as hard as we can.”
Hinson, a 6-foot-4 southpaw, and Smith, a hard-throwing right-hander, are the team’s top two starters, with fastballs that reach the mid-80s. The pair has 13 wins combined, ERAs of 1.98 and 1.82, respectively, and 80 strikeouts.
During last week’s 14-0 league tournament title win over Wilson, Hinson had his best outing, allowing only three hits and striking out 10. He leads the team in wins (seven), strikeouts (54), and innings pitched (41). With a perfect 6-0 record, Smith has only given up six earned runs in 292/3 innings, while racking up 26 strikeouts, and he has added a solid off-speed pitch to his repertoire.
All three starters tend to be finesse-oriented, relying on an array of pitches and the ability to hit both sides of the plate. McCusker, shorter at 5-9, relies on craftiness and sports a 4-0 record with a 0.74 ERA in 242/3 innings pitched.
Wasson has adjusted to his relatively-new sidearm style to become comfortable in the closer’s role. This offseason, the Timberline coaching staff suggested Wasson change his motion to get more downward movement on the ball, and he has stuck with it, getting more at ease as the season progressed.
In addition to his seven saves, he’s usually a quick worker on the mound. In the Blazers’ 11-4 win against Yelm on the final day of the regular season, Wasson threw only five pitches in the seventh inning to close out the game.
“It works pretty well for me,” Wasson said. “I’m getting more downward movement on the ball and a lot more groundouts.”
“It gave him a chance to be more successful,” Weldon said of Wasson’s switch to a sidearm motion. “Nice to have that guy we can go to ... to throw strikes. He’s a good reliever.”
Weldon spent the past three seasons assisting Mark Rubadue, and was promoted to head coach when Rubadue stepped down following last season. He immediately went to work implementing his own program style, including speed training, conditioning and a three-days-a-week weight lifting program that began Sept. 8 – the first day of school.
That’s proved to be a big difference maker.
“One of the reasons we’ve done so well is because we’re all in good shape,” McCusker said.
The team, which graduated 12 seniors from last year’s district tournament team, has been productive in all facets – pitching, defense and hitting. Three Blazers with more than 50 plate appearances – Hinson, Robbie Ortiz and Ryan Tydingco – are batting better than .400, including Hinson, who leads the team with a .510 batting average, and has 26 hits and 22 RBI. The team is averaging 10 runs per game while allowing opponents a paltry 1.95 runs per game.
In 2009, Timberline earned its first state trophy (fourth place) in school history, playing two games at Safeco Field. The Blazers have a similar ambition to reach the state 3A tournament this year, which will be held at Cheney Stadium, home of the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers.
“We still haven’t proven ourselves yet,” Hinson said. “Our goal is to win state.”
Said Smith: “It’s good we’ve won a few games but we still haven’t done it.”
Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473 firstname.lastname@example.org