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Pacific baseball moves into new home

BASEBALL: Boxers will open Chuck Bafaro Stadium this weekend with a four-game set against Whitman
by: , Greg Bradley

After a year of transition with a young lineup and a season of games played at a temporary home field, Pacific's baseball team enters another year of transition in 2008.

This transitional year, however, should be more exciting and build better momentum for Pacific teams to come. For starters, the Boxers will return to Forest Grove to open the new Chuck Bafaro Stadium at Lincoln Park. Pacific will host Whitman in a four-game series this weekend, with the official grand opening and dedication ceremony scheduled for Saturday at noon.

The Boxers played 18 home games at Hillsboro Stadium last year, so the chance to move back to Forest Grove and play on a field of their own will be a major motivator.

While exciting, head coach Greg Bradley, now in his 13th season, admits that the first year in the new yard will be one of transition.

'We won't be able to practice on it much before we play games, so it will still be new for us just as it will be new for our opponents,' Bradley said. 'The prospect of playing here and playing on a true home field, however, excites all of us in the program.'

Bradley is hopeful that friendly confines will translate into better hitting. The offense struggled in cavernous Hillsboro Stadium. The Boxers hit just .264 as a team with 10 home runs, well down from their total of 26 the year before.

The pitching did its job to keep the Boxers in games, but a lack of pop at the plate kept Pacific from taking advantage in close games. Nearly two-thirds of the Boxers' 26 losses in 2007 were decided by two runs or fewer.

'We need to improve not just on our power numbers, but also hitting for average and on-base percentage,' Bradley said. 'I think our pitching kept us in games, but they weren't able to win games by themselves. We wound up not scoring enough, not having enough production to win it.'

With another year of experience and the return to Forest Grove, Bradley is confident that Pacific can return to a 15-win season, a plateau the Boxers have reached six of the last seven years.

'We have to make improvement in our overall record and we have to establish a home field presence,' Bradley said.

Unlike past years, Bradley believes the depth of the pitching staff will be the Boxers' biggest strength. A total of six hurlers will be vying for spots in the expanded four-man rotation. While no one sticks out as a true ace of the staff, Bradley sees a number of reliable and dependable arms.

'We will have four games in two days as opposed to three games in two days,' Bradley said of the new conference scheduling set-up for this season. 'We have to have more depth and at this stage we think we have more than we did last year. We have a number of guys who are capable and pretty equal that we think we can intermix.'

Pitchers

Brandon Larson and Sean Dickey will be relied upon for senior leadership on the Boxers' pitching staff. Larson put together a solid season in 2007 with a 4.76 ERA, but his 1-6 record reflected a number of hard-luck losses. Dickey saw most of his action as a middle reliever, but figures as a starting candidate after allowing 19 earned runs in 32 innings.

Junior Blaine Knuth finished with a 3.98 ERA, the lowest of any Pacific starter, until his year ended with an injury. Sophomores Andrew Curtin, who made two spot starts and finished with a 2-1 record, and Tyler Fransen, who made four starts late in the season, will also vie for starting positions. Junior Jason Reed, a transfer from Southwestern Oregon CC, will also compete for a starting spot.

As with the starters, the Boxers will benefit from a deep group of relievers. Junior Kyle Barksdale earned Second Team All-Northwest Conference honors as the Boxers' closer last year, amassing a 1.82 ERA in 19 appearances. Junior Nate McBride and sophomore Ryne Miyamoto will also figure into the mix after gaining good experience in 2007.

Freshmen Daniel Wolfe and Alex Edwards lead the list of newcomers in the bullpen. Wolfe comes to Pacific after two years as an all-state pitcher and infielder, while Edwards earned all-league honors his senior year as a reliever.

Catchers

Pacific returns the most experienced corps of catchers in the conference, thanks in part to an injury that kept the most experienced man out of the lineup for nearly all of the 2007 season.

Senior Matt Hendryx was injured in the first game of the season, which forced Barksdale and junior Korey Yost into a platoon behind home plate.

'Korey and Kyle both got some great experience,' Bradley said. 'They both got thrown into the fire when we thought they wouldn't be full-time guys and they both got a chance to play quite a bit.'

Hendryx, meanwhile, comes back as a strong offensive and defensive presence. The senior hit .319 during the 2006 season, third best on the team, and committed just five errors in 197 chances. Hendryx is ready to make an impact after watching last season from the dugout.

'Matt has a lot on the line,' Bradley said. 'He is back for his fifth year when he could have graduated last spring. He has a real sense of urgency to help our program be more successful. It's a huge goal for him now that he sat a whole year and has a chance to start over.'

Infielders

The infield positions will be a transition point for Bradley as injuries and departures have left the Boxers filling holes. Of the four infield positions, three will be manned by new faces.

Junior Nick McNeely is the only one of the starters who returns with a full season of experience. McNeely started much of the season at first base and was one of the Boxers' few power threats, hitting .298 with five home runs.

'Nick is the heir apparent at the position,' Bradley said. 'He swings the bat well from the left side and has improved his defense.'

Sophomore Kaeo Lau-Hee and freshman Billy Thomas will also compete for time at the corner.

Pacific will fill second base by committee until junior Frankie Guros can return from injury. The Boxers' regular starter last year and a .275 hitter, Guros continues to recover from off-season arm surgery. Curtin and Reed will platoon at the post while also seeing time on the mound. Freshman Max Price will covert from first base to second base after earning all-conference honors in high school.

Sophomore Brandon Kon will be challenged by stepping into a starting role at shortstop. Kon made eight starts as a freshman, but has solid defensive credentials. 'Brandon is very capable,' Bradley said. 'He is a very good defensive player and will do a great job at the position.'

The Boxers' best hitter, meanwhile, will make the move from shortstop to third base. Senior Zach Gantenbein fills the hole left by Ryan Bailey with another strong defensive arm. Gantenbein started 38 games as a shortstop last season and is the Boxers' top returning hitter with a .305 average and nine extra-base hits.

Freshman Derek Nelson will back up Gantenbein after earning all-state distinction his junior and senior high school seasons.

Outfielders

Pacific will return a mix of experience and youth in the outfield. The lineup will be flexible as Bradley moves a number of players in and out to help relieve logjams at other positions.

Senior Jeff Johnston will provide stability in center field. Johnston started all 40 games last year and will lock down a starting spot once again with his .293 batting average. Sophomore Joey Pulito is likely to start in either left or right field after starting 26 games as a freshman in a variety of positions.

Hendryx and Yost will likely play the outfield when not catching, as will Fransen when he is not on the mound. Sophomores Andy Tolbert and Jordan Nakayama will also vie for playing time as pure outfielders.