Sports

BlueJackets eye playoffs, good health in 2009

BlueJackets slugger Bucky Aona watches the ball fly off his bat during a game against Wenatchee in 2008. Aona led the league with 39 RBI in 2008. - Jesse Beals/ file photo 2008
BlueJackets slugger Bucky Aona watches the ball fly off his bat during a game against Wenatchee in 2008. Aona led the league with 39 RBI in 2008.
— image credit: Jesse Beals/ file photo 2008

After an injury-plagued season in which the team lost five of its final six games, missing the playoffs, the Kitsap BlueJackets are set for a strong 2009 campaign.

The summer collegiate baseball team kicks off another season in the West Coast League (WCL) tomorrow against the Tacoma Cardinals, a feeder team, at the Regional Athletic Center in Lacey. The regular-season home opener is June 12 against the Bend Elks at Lobe Fields at the Kitsap County Fairgrounds.

Last year, the Jackets, who finished 19-23 and missed the playoffs by four games, fell victim to injuries that depleted the pitching staff, forcing coach Matt Acker to mix, match and put players in positions they may otherwise not have played.

Conner Whalen and Mike Woolford were just two of those players, being asked to share closing duties after the relief corps sustained a handful of injuries early in the season. Acker said his team was without eight of its 16 pitchers at one point in the season.

“We started slow, lost a lot of pitchers early,” the fifth-year coach said Tuesday. “At the end of the season, our lack of pitching was apparent and we hit a wall.”

The Jackets contended for a playoff berth despite the lack of pitching, reeling off nine victories in 10 games after opening the season 0-6. But those hopes were dashed with a sweep to Bend, which finished second in the WCL West Division to earn the division’s second and last playoff berth, in the second-to-last series of the season.

“Our offense and defense was solid all year, which is why we stayed in it,” Acker said.

With a core group of players returning, as well as a handful of newcomers who figure to make an immediate impact, both the offense and defense should once again be strong.

Bucky Aona is back after a 2008 season in which he hit .315 with four home runs and league-best 39 RBI. Doug Buser, who finished fourth in the WCL with a .338 average to go with 33 runs and 12 stolen bases in 16 tries, also returns. Among the other key returners on offense are Kyle Baskett, who hit .287; Aaron Johnson, a Central Kitsap grad who notched 26 RBI; and Brandon Decker, who stole 13 bases in 14 tries.

“I think we’re pretty balanced,” Acker said. “We’re returning some of our bread and butter guys.”

Chris Escobar, who last year was an All-Star for the Wenatchee AppleSox, and Caleb Brown, a 2008 CK grad who now plays at the University of Washington, are only two of the newcomers who should see playing time — and make a contribution — right away.

University of Washington’s Adrian Gomez headlines what Acker hopes will be both a healthy and effective pitching staff that also includes Whalen, who returns, and Sean Greer, another returner.

“He’s going to be huge,” Acker said of Gomez. “That’s a really good situation.”

Zach Miller and David Olsen figure to give the Jackets two more reliable right-handed arms, as should last year’s No. 4 starter Trey Watt, but Acker said he is particularly excited to see Oklahoma State’s James Propst take the hill.

“I’ve heard nothing but phenomoneal things about him,” Acker said of Propst, also a right-hander. “They are just raving about him.”

The majority of Kitap’s pitchers are either starters or closers, meaning the team is short on middle relievers. However, Acker said that dynamic could work in his team’s favor if the starters pitch well enough to give the closers a lead. If that’s the case, “we could close games from the sixth inning on,” Acker said.

“We’re back in that situation again, having a bunch of starters and closers,” Acker said.

As for how the Jackets stack up against the rest of the WCL West, Acker said the division should feature “a lot of parity.”

The Corvallis Knights captured the regular-season title last season, going 31-11 to finish eight games ahead of Bend and 12 in front of Kitsap. In addition, the Jackets will play Corvallis, Bend and Bellingham 12 times each, up from six in 2008.

“We’re in a pretty good division, it’s going to be a dogfight,” Acker said. “We expect to be back in the playoffs.”

Acker said he encourages fans to come out to the ballpark because the Jackets’ attendance figures dipped toward the bottom of the WCL last season after having been closer to the top in previous years.

“I think this is a great year for fans to rally around the organization,” he said. “There are some early season game that are going to be huge. The kids put on a heck of a show and the support helps a lot.”

As for what style of play fans can expect from the 2009 Jackets?

“I think you’re going to see kids who are really hustling around,” Acker said. “These guys respect the community and want to put on a good show.”

The Jackets also have scheduled a series of promotional nights, including youth baseball/softball day (June 13), senior Sunday (June 14), military appreciation night (June 15), $2 Tuesdays (beginning June 16) and youth Wednesdays (beginning June 17).

For more information or to order tickets, call (360) 479-0123.

The Jackets’ Web site is www.kitsapbluejackets.com.

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