Cougar baseball: Youth steps up

PULLMAN -- Injuries, surgeries and academic concerns sidelined many of Washington State's key veterans during fall baseball workouts, and several freshmen were quick to take advantage of added playing time to catch the eye of coach Donnie Marbut.

First baseman Adam Nelubowich, center fielder Jason Monda, left fielder Nate Blackham and pitcher J.D. Leckenby were among the freshmen who earned rave reviews from Marbut after six weeks of fall practices and scrimmages came to an end Wednesday at Bailey-Brayton Field.

Nelubowich, the Seattle Mariners' 14th-round draft pick in 2009, redshirted last season due to shoulder surgery. Marbut said Nelubowich and heralded junior college transfer Taylor Ard are locked "in a dead heat right now" for the starting job at first base. "He (Nelubowich) had a wonderful fall," Marbut said. "He might have had as good a fall as anybody."

Nelubowich lacks Ard's power, and Marbut said both players need to improve defensively. Ard put together a sensational freshman season at Mount Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore., two years ago (.490, 12 home runs, 49 RBIs), then redshirted at Mount Hood last spring after breaking his hand early in the season.

Marbut originally thought Monda might compete for the first base job, but the coach decided Monda's wealth of athleticism is better utilized in center field.

Marbut said Monda is giving junior Kyle Johnson a strong challenge for the starting job. Marbut planned to move Garry Kuykendall from center to left to make room for the speedy Johnson, but Marbut said Johnson was "just OK" in the fall.

As for Monda, Marbut said, "He's as good as anyone I've ever been around." The coach said he's as impressed with Monda's character and work ethic as his size, speed and all-around skills.

Blackham is another youngster whose grit and skill impressed Marbut. Marbut said Blackham and sophomore Brett Jacobs, who led the Cougars with a .340 batting average last season, "both had great falls" in left field.

Kuykendall was expected to miss most of the fall workouts while recovering from knee surgery. Marbut said he wound up suspending the senior from all baseball activities so Kuykendall could focus on improving academically.

Marbut said he expects Kuykendall and a long list of banged-up players to be ready for the start of the season. The walking wounded include some veteran pitchers who will compete for jobs out of the bullpen, but Marbut said he liked the promise shown by freshmen relief candidates Leckenby, Taylor Williams, Scott Simon and Brandon Williams.

Marbut said he plans to move senior Cody Bartlett, WSU's top player last season, from second base to his old shortstop position. That opens up a spot for junior second baseman Tommy Richards, who "had a great fall" and was Most Valuable Player of the summer West Coast League.

Marbut said Bartlett will continue to play some second base so slick-fielding freshman Trace Tam Sing can play short.

"He's without a doubt the most talented freshman infielder (defensively) I've ever seen," Marbut said.

Bartlett (bulging discs in his neck) and Tam Sing (elbow) both missed a good chunk of fall workouts, and Johnson went down late with a broken finger.

Pitchers Chad Arnold, James Wise, Paris Shewey, David Stilley and Richie Ochoa stayed off the mound all fall. Wise had a tired arm, and the others were recovering from operations.

Marbut said Arnold, a senior who turned down a contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, remains WSU's No. 1 starting pitcher unless someone beats him out.

That someone might be Adam Conley. Marbut said the junior left-hander worked and focused like never before this fall and is "a potential first-round pick" in next June's draft.

Right now, WSU's starting rotation is the same as the end of last season -- Arnold, Conley and Wise, in that order. Shewey, primarily a middle reliever last season, is being counted on to fill the closer role that Conley handled superbly much of last season before going into the rotation.

Returning starters who have held on to their jobs include right fielder Derek Jones, third baseman Matt Argyropoulos and catcher Jay Ponciano. Marbut said Patrick Claussen, a part-time starter last year, will see plenty of action at designated hitter, in the infield and in the outfield.

"He's as unselfish as they come," Marbut said.

Switch-hitting freshman Stetson Olson is giving Argyropoulos a solid push at third, Marbut said. Another freshman, Colin Slaybaugh, emerged from fall workouts as the No. 2 catcher behind Ponciano.

Marbut said Jones, WSU's leader in home runs (12) and RBI's (49) last season, only played "OK" in the fall after struggling all summer in the Cape Cod League. Marbut said Jones has the potential to be "one of the premier players in the country," but the coach wants the intense, hard-working Jones to ease up on the throttle a little bit.

"He just needs to go out and have fun and enjoy the game," Marbut said.

Marbut has repeatedly said the Cougars have a legitimate shot at making their first trip to the College World Series since 1976. He just hopes his team can survive a long, challenging season in the Pacific-10 Conference.

"The expectations will be high," he said. "We could be first or eighth or ninth. "In my seven years here, this is without a doubt the strongest it's ever been. I would not be surprised if there are 25 to 30 players drafted in the first five rounds this year."