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2017 College Baseball Preview: WSU

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Marty Lees, former assistant to Pat Casey, looks to revitalize a program going through some growing pains (literally)

Shane Matheny: Not an Ed Sheeran opening act, but a pretty good ballplayer
WSU Athletic Communications

The 2016 season was a rough one for WSU baseball, as the Cougars finished just 17-29 overall and 11-19 in the Pac-12, good for last in the conference. The hitting was bad. The pitching was worse. But there was reason for hope, as it was the first season under new head coach Marty Lees.

Lees got a good long look at the roster, and decided he didn’t much like what he saw. The result was a massive overhaul where a number of players were encouraged to, uh, seek out playing time elsewhere. (Such is the world of partial, non-guaranteed baseball scholarships!)

The result is a team that appears to be a lot better, off to a 14-8 start. It hasn’t been against the strongest competition, but playing weak opponents didn’t stop them from being bad last year, so this is a positive development! The Cougs have played but one Pac-12 series, and it was a bit of a reality check as they dropped two of three to second-place USC.

But growing pains were and are to be expected from a team that features a plethora of newcomers from both the high school and junior college ranks.

The Coach

The Cougs boast a proud baseball tradition dating back to the days of Buck Bailey and more recently with Bobo Brayton, who won 1,162 games at the school, but with the exception of a small uptick under previous coach Donnie Marbut that included a pair of NCAA regional appearances, the program has fallen on pretty hard times. WSU trails well behind its peers in facility investments, and Coug fans watched the last few years as many of the in-state recruits the school used to lock down flocked to UW, Oregon State and Oregon.

So, when WSU landed Marty Lees after firing Donnie Marbut following the 2015 season, it was considered a bit of a coup for a program that, frankly, wasn’t all that attractive anymore. (Seriously: The locker room for the team is a couple of blocks away from the ballpark, meaning the team changes and then hikes over to the field with all its gear. Not ideal.)

Lees had been the top assistant to Pat Casey at Oregon State for years, with the general consensus being that Lees would step into the top spot whenever Casey decided to step away. But Lees decided to strike out on his own in 2013 and join a close friend at Oklahoma State, and after a successful stop there, athletics director Bill Moos was able to lure him back to the northwest. He’s been wildly successful wherever he’s been, noted as both a tremendous recruiter and an excellent teacher.

And he might actually be getting the support he needs: WSU has been working for years on building a baseball clubhouse adjacent to Bailey-Brayton Field, and it appears that perhaps the private financing needed for it is finally secured and construction can move forward soon.

Names to know: Pitchers

Unsurprisingly, most of the rotation is brand new this year. Here’s how it sets up:

FRIDAY: Damon Jones (RS-Jr.) - LHP, 6-5/230

SATURDAY: Ryan Walker (Jr.) - RHP, 6-2/200

SUNDAY: Cody Anderson (Jr.) - LHP, 6-6/200

Jones is in his second year at WSU after transferring from College of Southern Idaho and has assumed the mantle of the team’s No. 1. He’s been good overall, but a bad start against USC in the team’s Pac-12 opener (4 ⅔ IP, 11 H, 10 R) is skewing his overall stats pretty badly. Outside of that game, he’s been thoroughly decent (25 IP, 21 H, 10 R, 17 SO, 15 BB), albeit against lesser competition. Not really the stuff of typical “Friday Night Starter,” but solid.

Walker is in his third year the program, moving to the rotation out of the bullpen, where he had a lot of success. The transition was rough early on, as he gave up 19 runs in his first three starts, but he’s been nails since, giving up just three runs in 17 ⅔ innings, which included a nice start against USC (5 IP, 3 R, 6 H, 3 SO, 2 BB).

Anderson is in his first season out of Bellevue College, and there’s reason to believe he might be the best of the group. In the same number of starts as the other two and against the same teams, he’s given up just 13 runs in 35 innings, including 33 strikeouts against just eight walks. The highlight was an 8-inning, 1-run, 5-hit, 6-strikeout gem against USC, which allowed WSU to salvage the series finale.

A name to watch going forward is A.J. Block, a true freshman out of Newport High School; a 6-5/200 lefty, he’s allowed just two runs in 12 ⅔ innings over five appearances, two of those coming in spot starts. He was a 39th round selection by the Chicago Cubs.

Colby Nealy (Jr.), Trenton Dupre (Sr.), Parker McFadden (So.), Caleb McAllister and Joe Rosenstein are the primary arms out of the bullpen, with Scotty Sunich holding down the closer’s role. He’s got seven saves already this year, allowing just three runs in 13 innings with 14 strikeouts.

Names to know: Hitters

Shane Matheny (Jr.) - 3B, 6-1/205

The Bremerton native has taken a massive step forward this year, hitting .384/.464/.671. He’s already set a career high in doubles (11) and home runs (2), and he recently had a 12-game hit streak snapped. He’s hit safely in 17 of 20 games, and has seven multi-hit games. Oh, and he’s also got three steals.

J.J. Hancock (Jr.) - RF, 5-11/185

Hancock, from Kennewick, is another experienced holdover from the previous coaching staff, and he’s paying off big time for Lees. Despite his average frame, he generates a lot of power: Hancock leads the Cougs with three home runs. He has nine extra base hits after only seven extra base hits in his first two years combined, leading to a .338/.395/.568 line.

Dylan Plew (Fr.) - 2B, 6-3/200

Plew is also from Kennewick, and he’s taken on the role of leadoff hitter for the Cougs. He’s displayed a preternatural command of the strike zone as a true freshman, racking up 18 walks to hit .309/.466/.412.

James Rudkin (Jr.) - 1B, 6-0/205

Rudkin was one of the jewels of Lees’ recruiting class, with the coach calling him “one of the best junior college hitters and defensive first baseman in the country.” He was expected to provide power, and while he’s hit plenty of doubles -- his nine doubles trails only Matheny -- he’s still looking for his first dinger. He’s hitting .313/.415/.425.

Danny Sinatro (Fr.) - UTIL, 5-11/170

Sinatro has played in just nine games and made just two starts, but if you’re an unaffiliated college baseball fan, why not cheer for the team that signed Matty Sinatro’s kid? (Also, he was a 40th round selection by the Cleveland Indians.)

How to follow

The vast majority of WSU’s games have moving pictures somewhere; there are links to the various streams on the team’s schedule page. All radio broadcasts are available on the WSU IMG Network channel on TuneIn.com.

Up next for the Cougs is a trip to Berkeley; Cal is 1-5, so there’s an excellent chance to pick up a couple of wins and get back to even in the Pac-12 conference standings.

And, of course, Go Cougs!