By BEN WENTZ
of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin
WALLA WALLA - The nights are shorter, the days warmer, and the Laht Neppur is on tap.
Yes, it's summer, and now that Borleske Stadium is once again filled with the crack of wooden bats and the pop of a fastball into a catcher's mitt - and an oversized sweet onion with legs - we don't need to wait for the summer equinox to declare spring over and gone.
The Walla Walla Sweets are back.
Now into it's third year of existence and coming off a thrilling run to the West Coast League's 2011 championship series, Walla Walla has its sights set on a strong finish again.
But it's a long journey from June to August. And despite the fact that Friday night's season-opening match with defending WCL champion Corvallis is fast approaching, players are still streaming in from all corners.
"Guys are slowly coming into town and I think by Friday we'll have enough guys to put a team on the field," Sweets manager J.C. Biagi joked. "It's fairly typical, everybody kind of deals with it. The California quarter schools are all done June 15, so we've dealt with that for three years. It's kind of what you expect and you fill in with 10-day guys (players who have signed a 10-day contract) where you need to."
The roster is down in size as well, down from 35 players in 2011 to 27 this year, with the majority of the downsizing taking place in the bullpen. But Biagi said that was a deliberate strategy.
"It makes it easier to manage," Biagi said. "Last year we started the year with right around 18 arms. Rather than just go stockpile arms, it was kind of a strategic move in that we can go get guys who we know are going to be effective."
And the Sweets have been able to more effectively evaluate and recruit now, as compared to when the team first started thanks to the good will they've built with college coaches.
"We're getting to the point where college coaches know what we do and how we go about it," Biagi said. "We've gained a little credibility in that, so we go target some specific guys."
It's yet to be seen whether that recruiting prowess will pay off on the field of play - in some ways it's always a crapshoot whether players will pan out - but it certainly seems to have worked out quite nicely heading into the season.
The Sweets' biggest get so far has been left-handed high school pitcher Hunter Virant from Camarillo, Calif., although he is still eligible for Major League Baseball' amateur draft in June and may yet sign with a pro team if he is picked high enough.
However, if Virant does make it to Walla Walla, he will likely be a major contributor.
"He's got a good fastball," Biagi said. "He's going to sit in the high 80's (mph), low 90's. For a left-handed guy coming out of high school, that's pretty good. That's pretty good for a college guy. And frankly, if you look in the major leagues, that's pretty good there too."
In addition to his fastball, Biagi said Virant, ranked as the No. 1 left-handed pitching prospect in the nation by one recruiting service, has decent off-speed pitches and the right mental makeup.
"We haven't seen him in person, but from what we've heard the things that need to be there are there," Biagi said. "He's a level-headed kid, he's a competitor. All those things, you mix them up in a pot and you've got a good left-handed pitcher."
The Sweets also added 2011 WCL all-star Spencer O'Niel to the lineup. O'Neil, a graduate of Southridge High in Kennewick, was busy cranking balls over the right field fence at batting practice Wednesday.
"Spencer had a great season a year ago in Cowlitz, so we're excited about adding his bat to the lineup," Biagi said.
Last season with the Bears, O'Niel batted .290 with 31 RBI and four home runs.
"Spencer O'Niel is one we're certainly excited about," said Sweets general manager Zachary Fraser, who is responsible for evaluating and signing prospects. "The fact that he's a guy from the Tri-Cities, he fits into the philosophy of trying to develop local talent."
The biggest challenge that stands in the way of Walla Walla, which finished the regular season at 26-28, is likely continuity.
Biagi attributed last year's 7-3 finish in the regular season and sweep of regular-season East Division leader Wenatchee in the East Championship Series to the team gelling - something the Sweets will have to work at again with about 75 percent turnover on the roster.
"Some of it's just baseball stuff," Biagi said of the late-season run. "Everyone gets hot at one time, starts swinging the bat, we start pitching a little bit, and everything kind of came together. But really, last year's group was unique. Last year's guys kind of came together a little bit.
"That was cool to see some camaraderie, guys pulling for each other," Biagi said. "It was a season and that was something they took pride in. And that's something you hope to develop every year."
Pitcher Tyler Billen of Southwestern Oklahoma State missed the playoffs last year because of his commitment to his college's fall program, but he said the team saw the light at the end of the tunnel when division rival Bellingham, which finished the season on a 2-8 slump, started to struggle down the stretch.
"Once we found out that Bellingham was starting to lose all of their games we decided, ‘Hey we have a really good chance of winning this,'" Billen said. "So we came together as one and started winning games. We started putting a few streaks together, and before we knew it, we were sitting in playoff contention and claimed that playoff spot to play Wenatchee."
The 6-foot-4 reliever, who was in the process of changing schools and out of shape last season, said he has high expectations for this year.
"This year, I'm here, ready to go and ready win a championship," Billen said. "And like I said before, I think we have the perfect opportunity to do that this year."
Another player making a return from last season is Hawaii junior Kalani Brackenridge.
"Last year we definitely flipped a switch when we needed it in the playoffs and were able to get it done and go to the championship," Brackenridge said. "Toward the end we all came together and just gelled."
Brackenridge is staying with the same host family this year and is looking forward to the new season.
"It's definitely amazing," he said of the game-night atmosphere. "We get a nice crowd every night and the coaches are nice - they treat us well."
As far as Biagi is concerned, he believes the pieces are there for the Sweets to have another nice run.
"We're happy with the guys we've got," Biagi said. "... We're seeing what we want to see, it's just a matter of going out there and executing and progressing and helping these guys get where they want to go."