Sweets ART

Sweets pitcher Nick Irwin flipped the ball onto the brim of his hat and balanced it there for several seconds before warming up prior to Saturday evening’s matchup with the Seattle Studs.

No more waiting.

An ambitious 2019 Walla Walla Sweets baseball team, much of its talent already proven at the college level, may have only one week of practice together under its belts when this season begins — defending West Coast League champ Corvallis comes here to Borleske Stadium on Tuesday night, with the first pitch scheduled for 7:05 p.m. — but really, the Walla Walla front office has spent almost a year preparing for this summer.

J.C. Biagi, a DeSales alum (Class of 2000) who also played here while at WWCC, returned to the Sweets as general manager in late September 2018.

Frank Mutz is back for his fifth season as the on-field Walla Walla skipper.

“I think we did a good job working together the last 10 months, ever since last season ended,” said Biagi, who had preceded Mutz as head coach the first six years of Sweets existence (2010-2014). “We sort of tag-teamed the effort, targeted the guys we wanted to get — guys who solid are human beings, first — and we’ve  picked up some proven college hitters. 

“We may be a little bit young on the mound right now, but we’ve got some guys with a lot of promise,” Biagi said. “I feel confident we’ve got the pieces for a really good team, we just have to see how they fit together.”

Last year, overall, the Sweets finished third in the South Division with a 28-26 record. 

The first half of the season saw Walla Walla go 15-12, but wind up two-and-a-half games behind front-running Portland and one back of defending champ Corvallis.

But the perennial powerhouse Knights returned to the playoffs by besting the second half of the 2019 season while the Sweets finished seven games back.

The Knights then swept Portland in a best-of-three semifinal series before making short work of Kelowna to win another WCL title for Corvallis, its third in a row and sixth in the last 11 years.

Corvallis has played in the championship series 10 of the last 12 years.

But the Sweets are ready to make a statement and set a tone for the rest of this season.

“The thing is we won four of six games against (Corvallis) last year,” Mutz said. “We want a strong start, and I think we will have the majority of our pitching staff there on Opening Day with 15-16 of our 19 pitchers, so that’ll help a lot. 

“And we don’t have any 10-day players,” Mutz said, referring to the temporary fill-ins of past seasons Walla Walla would need as it waited for some schools or collegiate teams to finish. “We focused on making sure we have our guys.”

The Sweets welcome back eight players from last season, including utility man Ryan Johnston, a UC Irvine pitcher and outfield who returns for his fourth season in Walla Walla — this time as also an assistant coach.

A pair of Walla Walla Community College pitchers, lefty Brayde Hirai and 6-foot-5 right-hander Michael Peterson — WCL Pitcher of the Week last year in early August, when he tossed seven shutout innings in a 2-0 win against Kelowna — join Johnston on the returning staff along with Ty Hueckman, from University of Nevada, Reno.

The outfield in Walla Walla welcomes back WCL all-star Cesar Lopez (Cal Poly Pomona) as well as Ben Fariss (UC Santa Barbara) and Paul Caulfield (Santa Barbara Community College).

Dimick Wood, of Briar Cliff University, is also back as a do-it-all utility man, and the Sweets have added some other familiar names.

Outfielder Brandon Wagstaff follows Hirai and Peterson from WWCC, Travis Craven joins the Sweets pitching staff from that of Northwest Conference champ Whitman, and infielder Connor Cirillo (bound for USC) is the son of retired Major League all-star and former Seattle Mariner Jeff Cirillo.

Meanwhile, the Sweets dipped into the Pac-12 Conference for University of Washington catcher Michael Petrie, Oregon pitcher Andrew Mosiello, Oregon State backstop Caden Cortese, and UCLA teammates Emanuel Dean (outfielder) and Charles Harrison (pitcher).

Oregon State and UCLA both are still competing in postseason play, like some other schools from which the Sweets draw talent, and they must also wait for a few to finish classes. 

Walla Walla might have to play without its full roster active for another four weeks, but the Sweets prepared for that.

“We took our time recruiting this year’s team,” Biagi said. “We recognized how there’s this cycle of players coming in, like the ones from quarter schools that won’t be done until the end of June, so we were patient. And when you do that, you can uncover some gems. 

“There’s some schools that we’ve grown accustomed to getting players from the last few years — like UCLA comes to mind right now,” Biagi said. “But there’s also guys out there hunting for opportunities, like some of the local guys.”

When at full strength, the Sweets will boast a power-packed lineup.

From Colorado Mesa, the Sweets got a pair of slugging infielders in 6-foot-1, 235-pound Jordan Stubbings and 6-2, 200-pound Caleb Farmer.

In 58 games so far this spring, Farmer and Stubbings have already combined to hit 20 home runs and 35 doubles with 98 runs batted in.

As of this weekend, Colorado Mesa still is action being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Division II Tournament.

The Sweets also have 6-foot-4, 265-pound Kalaheo, Hawaii, native Brock Ephan from Lewis-Clark State as well as 6-foot, 205-pound outfielder Danny Cervantes from Central Arizona College.

“The most exciting part of our roster, to me at least, is that we have some real proven college hitters — guys who already have experience hitting at the college level,” Biagi said. “You don’t really see that very often in the West Coast League.”

The Sweets also have catcher Tristan Kings (Northern Illinois University), infielder Justin Folz (Palomar), and another pair of utility men in David Le Boida (Pepperdine), and Ben Johnson (Northwest Nazarene).

As for pitchers, Walla Walla has the left arm of Chazz Martinez (UC Santa Barbara) along with a couple of Northwest Nazarene right-handers in Brennan Patterson and Nick Irwin.

The staff also has right-handers Landon Boeneke (Tulane), Wyatt Boone (Saddleback College), Mason Kokodynski (Loyola Marymount), Bryson Spagnuolo (San Diego City College), Riley Ohl (UC Riverside), Reid Sebby (Nevada Reno), Connor Coballes (Yakima Valley), and Nate Dahle, of Tremonton, Utah.

Mutz sees his team has potential to wreak havoc on the WCL with plenty of guys who know what they’re doing.

“It’s an older team,” Mutz said. “Something we set out to do was to get guys with college experience, guys who had playing time at the college level. 

“We still develop younger guys, but we really wanted guys with experience,” Mutz said. “We return some guys from last year, plus we’ve got some guys that played for other clubs — like Parker Price was with Wenatchee. 

“We went for experienced players this year.”

Biagi feels they have set the stage for an exciting season.

“The other thing that comes into play is our season,” Biagi said. “There’s a first half and a second half, so that goes into your strategy of building your team a little. 

“We’ve signed 10-15 guys just the last month or so, so now we’ve got about 36 guys, and not a single 10-day guy,” Biagi said. “There aren’t any temporary Sweets.

“Our plan is to come out of the gates hot, establish ourselves, and stay strong to give ourselves the most chances of getting into the playoffs.”

Hector writes stories about local sports, helps produce the daily section and updates the web site. A lifelong sports nut having grown up in Maryland, he joined the U-B with more than 15 years experience in journalism.

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