BlueJackets set for regular season

(Top) Starter Trey Watt, who pitched four innings, fires a ball during the second inning of the BlueJackets’ 8-1 win against the Tacoma Cardinals.  -
(Top) Starter Trey Watt, who pitched four innings, fires a ball during the second inning of the BlueJackets’ 8-1 win against the Tacoma Cardinals.
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LACEY — Matt Acker is no chemist.

But for the first few weeks of this young season in the West Coast League, the fifth-year Kitsap BlueJackets coach is experimenting with many different lineups to find the most productive — or potent — baseball solution, hoping to put a winning combination on the field.

The mixing and matching began Tuesday at the Regional Athletic Complex in Lacey where the Jackets earned an 8-1 victory over the Tacoma Cardinals, a developmental team comprised of players from around Puget Sound, in the first of three exhibitions games before the season officially kicks off Friday. After a tie Wednesday, the Jackets lost to the Auburn A's, another developmental team, Thursday.

“It was definitely kind of a guess,” Acker said, referring to the fact his team only practiced one time, on Monday, before the opener. “But you have an idea of what the kids can do.”

Practice time is limited early because the Jackets’ lineup consists of college players from all corners of the country and some schools have yet to complete final exams. By rule, players aren’t allowed to hit the field until school is out.

With a partial lineup with which to work, Acker turned to returning pitcher Trey Watt, who allowed one run in four innings. Acker said the right-hander was a “little rusty.”

“He worked behind a little bit in the count, but he’s a good pitcher. We know what we’re going to get out of him, he’s going to throw strikes,” Acker said. “He’s a competitor. I think he overcame a lot of the situations he put himself in.”

Acker used four pitchers Tuesday, handing the ball to Kyle Hamman, who pitched three innings, as well as Steven Singer and Kelly Constantini, both of whom pitched one inning. All three pitched shutout ball, but Hamman looked the sharpest.

“He threw strikes, he worked ahead (in the count), he was definitely our most efficient pitcher,” Acker said. “I was very impressed. He threw a lot of fastballs, which is what you want to do.”

The Jackets have 16 pitchers on the official roster, most of whom have finished school, giving Acker a deep pool of arms with which to experiment. He said the exhibition games are an opportunity to evaluate talent and put players in positions where they’re most likely to succeed.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “The more successful situations we can put them in and have them complement each other, the better we’re going to be.

“For the next three days, we’re going to see as many pitchers as we possibly can.”

The team won’t be at full strength until June 19 because the University of Washington as well as a few other schools are still in session. The Jackets have four UW players — pitcher Adrian Gomez and position players Caleb Brown, Max Kwan and Andy Bethel.

“We’ve got kids trickling in until June 19,” Acker said. “At the beginning of the season, it’s finding the chemistry of the team and evaluating the talent, as a coaching staff, as quickly as possible.”

Shortstop Chris Escobar, a University of San Francisco player who was an All-West Coast Leaguer last year for the Wenatchee AppleSox, looked impressive on both sides of the ball, scoring two runs while committing no errors.

“He’s very talented,” Acker said. “He’s a great addition for us.”

With Escobar at shortstop plus infielders Andy Bethel and James Propst set to return after solid 2008 seasons, Acker said his team should be strong up the middle.

“It’s huge in this league to have a great defense in the middle, a solid center fielder and pitching,” Acker said. “The rest of it is bonus. If you’ve power, it’s awesome. We have a good setup for our club.”

Bucky Aona, a first baseman, provides that power. The fourth-year Jacket finished with 39 RBI last season and figures to hit No. 4 in the order. Aona said it felt good to return to the Jackets after another season at Southern Utah University.

“Besides the fact that every individual wants to get better and prepare themselves for their own league next year and whatever division they’re playing in, we’re here to win,” he said. “The first thing is to win. If you win, you play more games and get better; they go hand-in-hand.”

The slugger said he’d like to see the Jackets leapfrog the Corvallis Knights, last year’s WCL West Division champs and return to the playoffs.

We’ve got a lot more pitchers this year, the extra arms are going to help us in the long run,” Aona said.

The Jackets’ home-opener is at 7:05 p.m. June 12 against the Bend Elks.

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