Blue Devils fly into new season

Walla Walla High School first basemen work through a drill on over throws toward the base during an afternoon practice leading up to their season-opening jamboree this Saturday.

Walla Walla High School first basemen work through a drill on over throws toward the base during an afternoon practice leading up to their season-opening jamboree this Saturday. Photo by Matthew Zimmerman Banderas.

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Walla Walla High School head baseball coach Keith Gradwohl checks out his team as outfielders' work on long throws to third base during an afternoon practice leading up to the team's season opening jamboree Saturday.

WALLA WALLA — Walla Walla High School graduated six seniors from last season’s district-qualifying baseball squad, but with nine returning seniors and 11 players with significant varsity experience, this Blue Devils squad could be even more veteran.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be question marks as Wa-Hi begins its season Saturday with a jamboree against Southridge and Moses Lake at Murr Field.

The Blue Devils get the majority of their innings pitched back in the form of Adam Mathews and Luke Reardon, who combined to pitch 88 out of 136 innings in 2012.

And they should be well stocked on defense to confront the 14-game Mid-Columbia Conference regular-season slate.

The big question mark will be on offense.

Of the five seniors that graduated, all but one had a batting average above the team average of .316, including Moe Handcox, the Blue Devils’ lead-off batter who led Wa-Hi in every major offensive category except for RBIs.

And add to the list of offensive losses current senior Spencer Locati, who led Wa-Hi in 2012 with 23 RBIs and batted .333 with a .569 slugging percentage, second best on the team behind Handcox.

He is recovering from shoulder surgery and won’t be back until near the end of the regular season, Wa-Hi coach Keith Gradwohl said.

“This year we’ve got quite a few varsity innings back on the mound,” Gradwohl said, “so we’re going to be pretty experienced on the mound. But we did graduate a few kids who produced a lot of runs so we’re going to have to fill their shoes.”

With Reardon and Mathews back on the mound, Wa-Hi has a strong one-two punch, but who will step in at No. 3 and 4 in the rotation is still in flux.

An all-conference second-team selection last season, Reardon was the Blue Devils’ workhorse, pitching in 10 games with a 4-3 record and a save. Over 53 innings he accumulated a 2.77 ERA and 34 strikeouts.

“He’s added some strength,” said Gradwohl of Reardon, whose main pitches are a fastball, changeup and sinker. “He’s throwing the ball more crisply, but his forte is going to be getting the ball to sink and get grounders.”

An honorable mention on the all-conference team, Mathews had a 1.60 ERA in 2012 over 35 innings. He went 3-1 with a save in seven appearances and holds the distinction of having walked just four batters and hit two over the entirety of the season.

The most experienced pitcher on the roster other than Locati, who pitched 20 innings with a 5.60 ERA, is Jarrod Needham.

Needham threw 12 2/3 innings in five games with a 3.32 ERA, but is also nursing an injury.

Others competing for a starting role include senior Daniel Lake, junior Zach Zehner and sophomores Trever Coronado and Blake McKinney.

“So far, I’m feeling really good about the two returners (Reardon and Mathews),” Gradwohl said, “but it’s going to be really tough not to have four starters. We’re looking at some of the sophomores and underclassmen to fill the 3 and 4 spots, but it’s not like they’ve never pitched before, it’s just not been at the varsity level.”

With no clear power hitter, but an abundance of team speed, the Blue Devils will be sticking to their small-ball mentality on offense.

“We’re pretty sure that’s going to be our nature,” Gradwohl said. “We’re going to have to be able to run the bases and move the ball around. We’re going to have to generate runs with some small ball.

“We think we have some guys that are going to be able to do that, too,” Gradwohl said. “We don’t have a guy that will lead the league in stolen bases like Josh Eggers did last year (Eggers had 20 stolen bases, Handcox 11), but we do have good overall team speed.”

Wa-Hi returns three batters who had 25 or more appearances at the plate last year and better than a .300 average: Zane Henderson (.320), Reardon (.350) and Needham (.314).

But where any individual might fit into the lineup is still not settled heading into Saturday.

“We don’t even know who our starting crew is yet,” Gradwohl said. “There’s a lot of competition out there. We know what kids can do, or what they have done in the past, but some of these kids can really change over a year.”

Henderson and Lake will likely end up near the top of the lineup, Gradwohl said, and Needham would likely be a middle-of-the-lineup hitter, were it not for a nagging back injury.

Reardon could move to the middle of the lineup as well after he put on some strength over the offseason.

“He put on 10 pounds over the summer and it’s not like it’s fat,” Gradwohl said. “He’s just a big, strong kid.”

And Locati, when he is healthy, will likely also drop into the middle of Wa-Hi’s lineup.

“Last year we played small ball really well. Hopefully, we’ll do even better this year,” Gradwohl said. “With what I’m seeing right now, we’re not going to be hitting a lot of home runs — we need to be hitting the gaps and running the bases.”

After Saturday’s jamboree, the Blue Devils host Pendleton in the first game of a home-and-home series next Friday.

Wa-Hi will play a neutral-site game with Mount Si on March 16 and host a doubleheader with Lewiston on the 21st before opening MCC with a home doubleheader against Richland on the 26th.

The Blue Devils won’t play a true road game until the 29th, when they play Chiawana in a twin bill.

The move to the MCC away from the Columbia Basin Big Nine will make games against Class 4A league foes Richland, Pasco and Chiawana all the more important.

Although all league games will count toward conference standings, only those against 4A opponents matter for postseason seeding.

Similar to the basketball and volleyball tournaments, all four teams will go to districts, but the No. 1 seed is guaranteed a berth at regionals, while the remaining teams will have to play single-elimination games to earn the second berth and a chance at the conference’s first seed to regionals.

“We really need to have our best guns going against Richland, Chiawana and Pasco, but on the other hand all league games count, so you have to see how it shakes out and just play hard,” Gradwohl said. “Hopefully, we get hot at the right time.”

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