Acker turning eyes to Jackets’ offseason

Fan favorite and Kitsap BlueJackets slugger Bucky Aona is one of several Jackets who should return next season. - Jesse Beals/file photo
Fan favorite and Kitsap BlueJackets slugger Bucky Aona is one of several Jackets who should return next season.
— image credit: Jesse Beals/file photo

Circumstance, injuries kept things interesting for Jackets.

This season was anything but easy for the Kitsap BlueJackets.

The summer collegiate baseball league that calls Lobe Fields at the Fairgrounds home, lost players before the season even began to the MLB draft. Others were lost to injury as the season progressed. One even had to leave on account of his newborn baby.

As a result, it’s easy to see how the Kitsap BlueJackets (19-23) ended up missing the playoffs, dropping five of the team’s last six games.

“We made a heck of a run at it,” Kitsap coach Matt Acker said. “We lost a tremendous amount of pitchers before the season even started.”

Ultimately, Acker said the team was forced to put players in situations they simply weren’t ready for. For example, due to injuries in the relief corps, Connor Whalen and Mike Woolford were asked to share closing duties.

“We were asking kids to do things they weren’t prepared to do,” Acker said. “Yes, they wanted to do it. Yes, we asked them to do it. But they weren’t capable yet.”

That said, Acker was excited to see his team in the playoff hunt right up to the season’s final week.

“They fought all the way to the end,” he said. “In the end, we weren’t getting blown out of the water. They were close with Bend.”

Bend actually beat Corvallis in the first game of the West Coast Collegiate Baseball League’s West Division series before the Knights swept the remainder. The Knights then swept East Division champs Wenatchee to win the WCCBL crown, its first.

“Bend beat ’em that first game,” Acker said. “Wenatchee didn’t beat Corvallis. That shows how tough our league is.”

While the BlueJackets stand to lose a number of talented players who will no longer be eligible, like catchers Jake Owens and Lawson Hipps, as well as utility player Keegan McCamment, the team returns most of its pitching staff, a byproduct of having too few returning arms this season.

“This year was a different year,” Acker said. “We knew going in we didn’t have very many returning pitchers. We knew the whole pitching staff would be brand new.”

Throw in the injuries and oddities and pitchers like Chad Wagner got a lot of opportunity.

“What he didn’t understand is that the talent level is higher than in junior college, but the hitters aren’t using metal bats,” Acker said, indicating that as the season went on, Wagner became a strong asset to the rotation. “Now that’s one thing that’s exciting about next year. We’ll return a slew of pitchers.”

Already slated to return are pitchers like Trey Watt, Whalen, Woolford, James Douglas, Jake Shadle, Sean Greer and more. On the offensive end, virtually the whole outfield will be back, including Kyle Baskett, Aaron Johnson and Brian Heere.

“We actually were a fairly young team,” Acker said. “They’re a phenomenal bunch of kids to coach. They did the most with the hand they were dealt. And they’re one of the best offensive and defensive teams.”

Kitsap finished tied for third in the WCCBL with a .261 team batting average with Spokane, finishing behind Corvallis (.266) and Bend (.275). Kitsap’s 217 runs were second overall, as was the team’s 377 hits, .968 fielding percentage and 52 errors (second fewest). That means replacing middle infielder Brandon Decker will be high on the offseason priority list. While still eligible to return, Acker said Decker’s school (San Diego State University) may not let him.

“The team played great defense,” he said. “I was happy. Finding a replacement up the middle is gonna be tremendous for us. We have to go out and find the right guy.”

On the hill, however, the team’s 4.55 ERA was the second highest.

“We know what we need to do for next season,” Acker said.

While he has been thinking some about next year’s team, most of his early offseason has been spent thinking of ways to improve the team’s off-the-field product.

For the third consecutive year, the BlueJackets have been competitive, on the verge of postseason success. Attendance, however, has remained the same for the third straight year.

“I’d like to see it grow,” Acker said. “The owners would like to see it grow. And I think the fans at the ballpark want to see it grow.”

As a result, the Jackets are looking at what else they can do to get more fans at the ballpark.

“That didn’t really click in my head until this year,”Acker said. “Having a competitive team every year, we’re gonna do that. I think we’re in a great spot. And I thought we did a great job as an organization making it entertaining for the kids. The interns and the owners did a great job with kids events this year. It was fun.”

But there’s always room for improvement, Acker said, which is why he’s heading to three different minor league parks next week to get a glimpse at what some other teams do.

“We want to put more entertainment value into it,” he said. “We expect to win. We’re a good team. But we want to grow our fans.”

Acker also is busy working on more affiliate teams. In fact, with the Tacoma Cardinals and Olympia Athletics already established, and plans for an Olympic College-based feeder team in the works, Acker said he’s also been approached about setting up a team for Central Washington University.

“I’m trying to turn into Branch Rickey here,” Acker said, with a nod toward the legendary baseball executive credited with not only creating the modern minor league system, but also helping break baseball’s color barrier with the singing of Jackie Robinson when Rickey was president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

He may not be kidding either. Acker said the WCCBL has inquired about affiliates en route to forming a developmental league.

“What’s happened is exactly what happened to (Rickey),” Acker said. “The league wants to take it over.”

But no matter who controls the teams, Acker said he knows who will see the benefits.

“Either way it benefits local talent, it benefits the Northwest and it benefits the BlueJackets,” he said.

The league also is talking about expanding its game schedule to 60 games and filling teams’ off days with games against the affiliate teams. Acker also said Legion Field will likely play home to one or more of the affiliate teams next season.

Short hops

The WCCBL announced its All-WCCBL Teams this week, but no Jacket made the first team despite some large statistical differences.

For example, Kitsap’s Doug Buser and Bucky Aona were the only Kitsap players on the second team despite Aona leading the WCCBL with 39 RBI and Buser finishing second in runs and hits, third in stolen bases and fourth in batting average. In Aona’s case, the next closest player had 28 RBI, coming nowhere near the first baseman.

Brandon Decker, Paul Dickey, Aaron Johnson, Max Kwan and Chad Wagner were all named honorable mentions.

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