Huskies Pearl has found success on the mound
Cascade High alum has gone from part-time UW infielder to hard-throwing closer and pro prospect, and he's part of a successful Snohomish County connection playing for the Huskies
In the span of less than a year, the University of Washington junior has gone from an anonymous, multi-positional matchstick to a sought-after flamethrower. Pearl doesn't know how it happened, but he can pinpoint almost the exact moment when it happened.
The UW infielder-turned-pitcher was throwing in a routine Northwoods League game last summer when the radar gun accelerated his big-league dreams like a 97-mile-per-hour fastball.
Pearl, a Cascade High School graduate who spent almost his entire childhood as a position player before joining the Huskies as a utility infielder, was pitching for the Green Bay Bullfrogs when one of his teammates informed him that his fastball was flying like never before. A radar gun in the dugout registered 97 miles per hour, three miles per hour faster than Pearl had ever thrown in a game.
"I thought maybe it was just the gun," Pearl said. "Sometimes you can pick up a couple miles per hour; that happens."
Except the surge in velocity continued. And now Pearl is not only the UW's closer but also a prospect for the June major league draft -- something that seemed inconceivable when he was filling in as a part-time infielder for the Huskies last spring.
"I've always felt like I could throw 100 miles per hour," said Pearl, who pitched only one year at Cascade and threw in the upper-80s. "My freshman year (at UW), I could never get faster than 92, 93, 94 miles per hour. I always wondered what I had to do to get that extra couple miles per hour. Now I've finally got there, and I just have to keep going."
Pearl is one of several unlikely stars with Snohomish County ties playing for the Huskies this season. Left-handed pitcher Geoff Brown (Jackson High School) leads the Pac-10 in appearances, with 29. Outfielder-DH Jake Rife (Lakewood High School) has overcome three injury-filled years to emerge as the Huskies' leading hitter in this, his senior season. And freshman pitcher Aaron West (Snohomish) earned a spot in UW's rotation but has been used primarily as a reliever of late.
Two other local products -- Jackson's Cam Nobles and Meadowdale's Matt Gorman -- are redshirting because of injuries.
Pearl and Rife have risen the highest in the shortest amount of time, seemingly coming out of nowhere to earn attention from pro scouts.
Rife suffered a broken hand and a series of hamstring problems while hitting .272 over his first three seasons at UW, but he's having a breakout year with a team-best .331 batting average in 2009.
Huskies coach Ken Knutson said that the Arlington native's turnaround has been about health and dedication.
"He's been diligent in his approach," UW coach Ken Knutson said. "He might have taken more swings (in the batting cage) this year than anyone who's ever been through this program."
Rife said he sometimes spends 20 to 30 hours per week in the batting cage, although he did add: "That might be an exaggeration. It feels like I'm in there forever."
The extra work is a result of a conversation Rife had with former Seattle Mariners manager Mike Hargrove, who coached Rife's semipro team last summer in Liberal, Kan. At the conclusion of the season, Rife asked Hargrove what he thought his chances of getting drafted might be. Hargrove's answer: about 40 percent.
"That really got me focused -- all fall, winter and spring," Rife said. "I've heard from a couple (major league) teams who said they like me. Maybe the door's now open to go play pro baseball."
Like Rife, Pearl's journey has not been quite the overnight-sensation story it appears. While he gives a bewildered shrug when asked how a player can add three miles per hour to his fastball, he does acknowledge a few possible factors.
Pearl dedicated himself to becoming a full-time pitcher last summer, going as far as to tinker with his mechanics and add a curveball to his repertoire. He's also added 20 pounds of muscle -- from 170 as a freshman to 190 -- to help elevate himself into a pro prospect.
"As a third baseman, because of his body type, he didn't really fit the profile there," Knutson said of Pearl's pro prospects as a position player. "But when you throw off the mound in the mid-90s, people like you regardless of how big you are."
While his name is not among the top 50 or so college players eligible for the June draft, Pearl certainly has popped up on a few scout's radars in recent months. One mock draft on the internet has him being selected in the second round.
"The first game I pitched this year, I looked up and saw 20 scouts' radars pointed at me," said Pearl, who has a team-best eight saves and an ERA of 3.03. "That's not something I was prepared to see.
"My main focus is just to help my team as best I can, and we'll see what happens from there."
Despite the efforts of Snohomish County's latest crop of baseball success stories, the Huskies (25-27) have hovered around .500 for most of the season. That's not a familiar spot for this group -- Brown, West and Nobles won state titles in high school, and Rife led Lakewood to back-to-back runner-up finishes -- but better days may be ahead.
Washington has won six of its past eight games, including two of three against nationally ranked Oregon State. The Huskies conclude the regular season this weekend with a three-game series against WSU in Pullman.
"It's frustrating; we're so used to winning," Brown said. " But this team has a lot of talent. We can hit, we can pitch. If we put it all together, like we've shown the last couple weeks, we can win games."
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