Slaats, UH start WAC play
By Stacy Kaneshiro
Advertiser Staff Writer
So effective over the summer in the Cape Cod League, Baseball America's preview of the Western Athletic Conference listed Josh Slaats as a preseason all-league relief pitcher.
Instead, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior right-hander has turned into one of the league's premier starting pitchers. The reigning and three-time WAC Pitcher of the Week leads the league with a 1.03 earned run average to go along with his 3-1 record. He hasn't allowed a run at home in 20 consecutive innings.
"Just the confidence in the approach to the game," Slaats said of his season. "I fixed a few mechanical things that really helped. You mix that with confidence and my aggressive mentality that I brought this year, it's definitely been the key to my success."
Slaats will start tonight's WAC season opener against four-time defending champion Fresno State. The Bulldogs (17-12) ended UH's season in the conference tournament held at Les Murakami Stadium in May. The Bulldogs have a modest four-game win streak.
"I'm glad we open with them," said Slaats. "They're a good team. Hopefully, we can get a jump-start, maybe win the series, show the WAC we're a good team this year."
Pitching solely out of the bullpen last year, Slaats was 2-2 with an 8.33 ERA and four saves. But pitching for the Wareham Gatemen, he went 2-1 with a 0.95 ERA and one save, striking out 24 in 19 innings as a setup and closer.
When Slaats returned to UH in the fall, there were open auditions for spots. Hawai'i coach Mike Trapasso said before the season that he wanted Slaats to be able to throw his fastball inside. While Slaats was showing improvement during fall and spring workouts, Trapasso said he now had to perform under "scoreboard pressure."
Slaats has responded well. He has allowed only one earned run in 29 2/3 innings at home. His only loss was at Cal State Fullerton, which beat UH, 3-0. Twice already this season, he has had career-highs with 10 strikeouts. He has walked nine in 45 innings.
Slaats said he was prepared for any role when he chose UH out of California High in San Ramon, Calif. He started eight games as a freshman, going 0-5 with a 7.09 ERA. When he made his first start of this season Feb. 21 against Oregon State, it was his first since his freshman year.
"When you're a reliever, you know you're only going to be going so long," Slaats said. "Your time out there, you exert all your energy. Mentally, you can focus on just those one or two innings. As a starter, you have to make sure you can stay in the game. There's a different kind of preparation."
He will face as tough a club as any in the Bulldogs, who are favored for the fifth consecutive season to win the WAC in preseason poll of conference coaches.
The Bulldogs are third among the seven WAC teams in scoring, averaging 6.9 runs per game, compared to UH's 5.7.
First baseman Jordan Ribera leads FSU with 12 home runs and 31 RBIs. Ribera is very familiar — perhaps too familiar — with Murakami Stadium. He hit home runs in each game in which FSU beat New Mexico State on the last day of the double-elimination tournament here last May.
Also back for the Bulldogs is second baseman Danny Muno, an on-base machine. He leads the team with a .445 on-base percentage, having drawn 20 walks. He consequently leads the team with 31 runs scored.
Slaats is not the kind of pitcher who relies on a scouting report. He just worries about making his pitches.
"I think I can be successful throwing the way I like to throw," Slaats said. "If I bring the same approach as I have against those other good teams (we faced earlier in the season), I think I can have success against Fresno."
The Bulldogs have one player with a tie to Hawai'i. Reserve infielder Kaohu Gaspar's parents, Warren and Yvonne, are from Kona.