Lindsay Meggs remembers when the Washington baseball team mustered more energy on the road than it ever did at its dilapidated ballpark.
“Many times, it was almost a letdown to come back home,’’ he said.
Those days are long past, however. When Washington takes the field Friday against Oregon, the buzz should be reverberating through the immaculately rebuilt Husky Ballpark.
This three-game series with the Ducks shapes up as the Huskies’ biggest in years — probably since Tim Lincecum’s freshman season of 2004. That was the last season the Huskies had a winning record in conference or earned an NCAA playoff berth, milestones that are both very much in play.
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Meggs, in his fifth season since replacing the fired Ken Knutson, calls the Husky baseball revival “a perfect storm.”
He has a veteran ballclub filled with talented upperclassmen lured to Washington on the promise of a new ballpark, which opened March 21.
The Huskies are the hottest team in college baseball, having won 10 straight games, and 17 of their past 18, to surge into the national rankings and to a two-game lead over Oregon and Oregon State in the Pac-12.
Picked to finished 10th of 11 teams (Colorado doesn’t field a baseball team), the Huskies instead have been galvanized by their new $15 million facility. Oregon coach George Horton, for whom Meggs once played in a Fairbanks, Alaska, summer league, calls it “another crown jewel in the Pac-12 conference.” Meggs calls it a game-changer.
Certainly, the ballpark is a large reason the Huskies have become part of the stunning revival of college baseball in the Northwest.
Despite pockets of past success — mostly by legendary coach Bobo Brayton at Washington State — the region had long been deemed too wet and too remote to thrive.
But all that changed when Oregon State, under coach Pat Casey, won national titles in 2006 and 2007. That feat was deemed by former Arizona State coach Pat Murphy as “the greatest college baseball story, in my mind, ever.”
Fast-forward seven years, and the Beavers remain a national power, now ranked sixth by Baseball America. Oregon, which after 26 years as a club sport revived its program in 2009, is ranked 19th — five spots behind the Huskies.
The Oregon schools have state-of-the-art facilities, and now, after many false starts over the years, the Huskies do, too.
Meggs said that the past few years, he’d bring artist’s renderings of the ballpark with him on recruiting trips. During campus visits, he’d hit the player and his family with videos and other visuals of the pending stadium.
“While it doesn’t match to a T, it’s really close, and it came out even better than advertised,’’ he said.
The mockups did their job. Junior standouts such as Andrew Ely, Trevor Mitsui, Robert Pehl, Jeff Brigham, Tyler Davis, Jared Fischer, Alex Schmidt, Erik Forgione and Branden Berry have helped fuel the revival.
Two sophomores, Braden Bishop and Austin Rei, have also been key offensive contributors, along with senior first baseman/outfielder Brian Wolfe. Named the Pac-12 player of the week the past two weeks, Wolfe injured his thumb during last weekend’s sweep of USC and will try to play this weekend with a splint. Meggs termed him day to day, and said if he can’t go, “Someone will step up.”
Washington’s emergence actually could be seen in its infancy last year. The Huskies, after a 4-16 start in part attributable to numerous injuries, won 15 of their last 22 to tie for sixth in the Pac-12 at 15-15.
Meggs believes having experienced players who went through tough times has been vital to navigating the Pac-12 this season. The Huskies have already won series against traditional powers Arizona, Arizona State and USC. The ballpark, meanwhile, has added an immeasurable bounce to the entire program.
“We’ve gone from literally the worst Division I facility to one of the best,’’ Meggs said. “It’s changed the entire climate in terms of the kids we’re dealing with, and the level of interest in the program across the board. It’s also changed the energy for baseball on campus.”
What has also changed over the past decade, dramatically, is the reputation of Northwest baseball. That allowed teams to not only keep the region’s best players from leaving for Sun Belt schools, it started to lure top players from warm-weather states like California, Arizona, Florida and Texas.
Horton pays homage to past Northwest coaches such as Brayton and Knutson while noting that the quality of youth baseball in the region has soared.
“The weather hasn’t changed a whole lot, but the opportunity to develop in a skill-based sport like baseball is more prominent,’’ he said.
Both Meggs and Horton point to Casey’s Oregon State breakthrough as the turning point.
“Now you can tell kids you can be nationally prominent and make it to Omaha (for the College World Series) from the Northwest,’’ Horton said. “Instead of a shallow recruiting promise, it’s actual reality. Prior to Oregon State’s surge, it was a little stretch to get Arizona or Southern California kids. Now it happens all the time.”
“To some degree, what Pat was able to do with their teams opened everyone’s eyes and proved to the college baseball world it could be done out here,’’ Meggs added.
“I still think there are warm-weather kids who have to see it to believe it. That’s been the advantage of the ballpark to us. We get kids here on visits because of what they’ve seen online, and the fact we’ve been winning. When they see firsthand what the park is all about, they’re all in.’’
This weekend, in a series with national ramifications, Husky Ballpark should be buzzing.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry