Mike Richard to start Walla Walla Sweets' opener

Local southpaw Michael Richard takes the mound against Wenatchee tonight in the Sweets' inaugural game at Borleske Stadium.

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The tailgate of a truck in downtown Walla Walla says it all as the Walla Walla Sweets prepare to open their inaugural season tonight against the Wenatchee AppleSox at Borleske Stadium.

WALLA WALLA - Mike Richard - the local kid - will take the mound tonight at Borleske Stadium when the Walla Walla Sweets open their inaugural baseball season in the West Coast League.

Richard, a southpaw pitcher who graduated from DeSales High School in 2007, gets the nod from Sweets manager J.C. Biagi - another local kid - for the long-awaited opener against defending WCL champion Wenatchee. The first pitch is slated for a 7:05 p.m., and only a few standing-room-only tickets remained as of 2 p.m. today.

Richard attended Spokane Community College for two years after graduating from DeSales, then transferred to Oklahoma City University where he logged a 10-4 record with a 4.85 earned run average and registered 66 strikeouts in 91 innings pitched this spring.

"Mike had a very good year at Oklahoma City," said Biagi, a 2000 DeSales grad who played two years of baseball at Walla Walla Community College and two years at Centenary College in Shreveport, La., before returning to Walla Walla where he recently completed his third season as an assistant coach at WWCC.

"His fastball sits in the mid-80s and can reach the high 80s," Biagi said of Richard. "He's got an OK changeup, and if he stays on top of his breaking ball he can be successful with it. Mike's got to work down in the zone. If he does, he will be OK."

Richard also has some experience in the WCL, an exclusive wood-bat league that attracts top collegiate players from across the country. Prior to his junior year at Oklahoma City, Richard was 2-1 with a 3:53 ERA for the now-defunct Spokane RiverHawks.

While Richard gives Walla Walla baseball fans a special reason to turn out for tonight's opener, an anticipated crowd of 1,700-plus will be just as eager to see some of the other talent Biagi and Sweets general manager Zachary Fraser have acquired for the 60-game 2010 campaign.

The Sweets roster lists players from colleges as far away as Georgetown, Cornell and St. John's University as well as Kansas, UCLA, Southern Cal, UC-Irvine and Cal Poly. Some of the other colleges represented on the roster are Washington State University, College of Southern Idaho and Lewis-Clark State College as well as WWCC and several other Northwest community colleges.

Players began arriving in Walla Walla late last week, and Biagi had as many as 18 players on hand for a Sunday workout at the stadium. One more player, USC infielder Matt Hart, was expected in town Monday and could be available for tonight's opener.

"We've been practicing since Thursday," Biagi said. "We've been able to see some of the guys on the field, move them around in some different spots, and also hit some. The talent level seems to be pretty decent.

"The idea of these first few days is to evaluate and determine which direction we need to go with particular guys. It's as much for us as it is for the guys trying to fit themselves into the program."

The good news, Biagi said, is that he has a satisfactory combination of players available for tonight's game.

"We're not going to have to compromise at any position," the manager said. "We're not going to have to move a guy to a position where he's not comfortable."

While his opening-night batting order isn't set in stone, Biagi envisions Kansas shortstop Kevin Kuntz leading off, followed by another Jayhawk, second baseman Jordan Dreiling, in the two hole.

The heart of the order, Biagi anticipates, will feature Jesus Martinez of Pima CC in Tucson, Ariz., batting third, Kansas catcher James Stanfield in the cleanup spot and Karsten Strieby of Arizona Western College in Yuma hitting fifth.

Curtis Dupart, who sat out the 2010 season at L-C state with an injury but has already been awarded a baseball scholarship at WSU where he will transfer in the fall, will play right field and bat sixth.

Biagai hopes to fill the bottom three slots in the order with Georgetown's Danny Poplawski at third base, L-C State's Andy Mathews (a former WWCC Warrior) in left field and Mathew Harjung of Cochise College in Douglas, Ariz., at first base, although not necessarily in that order.

However, Mathews is struggling with a nagging hamstring injury, Biagi said, and Hart could figure into the mix if he arrives in time.

"I think in the top part of our order we have guys who can run," Biagi said. "Our center fielder has very good speed, and our shortstop runs well.

"And we have an interesting mix of power in the middle. And power in this league is relative to driving the ball in the gaps more than having a high number of balls leave the yard. But I think in the middle of our lineup we will have the ability to drive in runs.

"And at the bottom, we will get back to having guys who can run and put the ball in play. We will be able to move guys around at the top and the bottom of our order."

Seven of the 18 players already in camp are pitchers. That said, Biagi is set on his rotation for the three-game home series against the AppleJacks.

Kody Young, a right-hander who played this spring at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, will get the call Wednesday night and Dupart, the future Cougar who pitches as well as plays the outfield, will start Thursday's 1:05 p.m. matinee.

"Kody throws a lot of strikes and had a very good year at CBC," Biagi said. "And Chris is a kid who throws in the upper 80s. He was listed in Baseball America's Top 100 high school seniors and was drafted out of high school, but he decided to go to Georgia Tech instead. And from there he transferred to L-C State."

The Sweets leave early Friday morning for British Columbia where they open a three-game set with the Kelowna Falcons that night. Then it's back to Borleske Stadium for a five-game home series - a pair of non-leaguers against the Portland Ports Tuesday and Wednesday of next week followed by a three-game WCL series vs. the Cowlitz Black Bears beginning June 18.

Meanwhile, Fraser, the GM, has been busy dodging raindrops and putting the finishing touches on a number of Borleske Stadium improvements, including a 16-foot-high, hand-operated scoreboard that will be in play as part of the stadium's left-field wall.

"All of the rain we've had has made it difficult to get everything completed," Fraser said. "The tent over our party deck will have to wait until the next homestand, but hopefully everything else will be ready."

Borleske Stadium seats approximately 1,600, and the opener is officially a sellout, Fraser said. But the stadium can handle about 150 standing-room-only fans, he said, and the final 75 tickets available will go on sale at the stadium box office today at 2 p.m. General admission tickets are priced at $4 and standing-room-only sell for $2.

The big crowd is just one more reason why Biagi is excited for tonight's opener.

"I grew up here, and I have never seen Borleske Stadium filled to capacity for a baseball game," Biagi said. "My focus will be on the game, but the crowd is going to be a unique aspect.

"It's exciting to see Walla Walla come together. I think it's neat for the community."

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