Marbut surprised Cougs not getting more love

ADAM CONLEY

PULLMAN -- The Washington State baseball team has a potential first-round draft pick whose fastball was clocked at 97 mph the other day. The Cougars return the top three starting pitchers, the two leading hitters, the winningest pitcher and the top power hitter off a 37-22 team that played in an NCAA regional title game and was ranked 24th in the final Baseball America poll.

So, yes, Donnie Marbut says, he was surprised the Cougars didn't crack the Top 25 in any of the preseason polls.

However, the coach notes, better late than never."I'd hate to be ranked in the Top 25 early and not ranked in the Top 25 late," Marbut said.

The Cougars are ranked in the preseason for the first time since 1991, albeit at No. 31 in the Collegiate Baseball Top 40 and No. 34 in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Top 35. WSU is tied for 34th in voting for the USA Today/ESPN Top 25.

Baseball America does not list teams outside its preseason Top 25, but it's worth noting that the highly respected magazine has six Pac-10 teams ranked -- all in the top 19, starting with No. 2 UCLA.

Obviously, the Cougars face a formidable task in trying to achieve their goal of advancing to the College World Series for the first time since 1976. It never hurts to have a dominant starting pitcher, and Marbut has appointed former bullpen ace Adam Conley as WSU's No. 1 starter.

"He's one of the premier pitchers in the country right now," Marbut said. "He has put in all the work and extras to make that happen."I can see some really special things out of him. He's diligent on the field, he's diligent off the field, in the weight room. He's really, really disciplined and dedicated to his game."He's just turned into a great teammate. He's always just trying to make the Cougs better."

Conley, a junior left-hander from Olympia, posted a 5-4 record and team-leading 3.33 earned run average last season. He struck out 47 in 67 2/3 innings. Marbut has no illusions about having Conley back as a senior.

"I expect him to be one of the first 50 players taken (in the June draft)," Marbut said. "I expect him to get a million bucks."

Senior right-hander Chad Arnold (5-3, 3.74), WSU's top starting pitcher last season, is expected to miss the first few weeks of the season. Arnold has just been cleared to resume throwing after dealing with bone chip in his right elbow that Marbut says has calcified to make surgery unnecessary.

"We hope to have him back -- at least out of the pen -- by week three or week four and have him starting by week five," Marbut said.

Another senior right-hander, James Wise (4-1, 5.18), is penciled in as the No. 3 starter after making some strong starts down the stretch last season. Junior left-hander Spencer Jackson (3-1, 5.00), whom Marbut said is throwing harder than ever after his 2010 season was shortened due to arthroscopic shoulder surgery for a torn labrum, is set to fill in for Arnold in the early going.

Returning players who appear set to start again are senior shortstop Cody Bartlett (.323, 7 home runs, 34 RBIs as a second baseman last year), junior right fielder Derek Jones (.309-12-49), senior third baseman Matt Argyropoulous (.272-3-39) and senior catcher Jay Ponciano (.225-1-11).

Brett Jacobs, who played in 49 games and made 37 starts as a freshman last year, is a top candidate to bat leadoff and duplicate his role of a year ago as a left fielder-designated hitter. Jacobs led the Cougars with a .340 batting average. He showed little power (no homers or triples, nine doubles, 22 RBIs) or speed (five steals in nine attempts), but he struck out just 21 times in 169 plate appearances.

"We don't have a prototypical leadoff hitter ... (but) he's got great pitch selection and works the count, doesn't strike out, puts the ball in play," Marbut said of Jacobs.

"That's what we're looking for. We struck out way too much last year from our leadoff position."

Marbut said Jacobs is one of five players fighting for playing time in left and/or center field. The others are defensive whiz Kyle Johnson (.282-0-8), utilityman Patrick Claussen (.282-1-17) and freshmen Jason Monda and Nate Blackham. Senior center fielder-left fielder Garry Kuykendall (.284-1-25 and a team-leading 13 stolen bases) left school after battling academic problems. Kuykendall often batted leadoff, but his 56 strikeouts were easily a team high, and his one-base percentage was a lukewarm .366.

Marbut can't say enough about Monda as a player, student and pro prospect."When it comes to just physical tools, I feel he has the highest ceiling of any position player I've ever been around," Marbut said.

Junior Tommy Williams, coming off a huge summer season, takes over for Bartlett at second base. Junior college transfer Taylor Ard, a power hitter, and redshirt freshman Adam Nelubowich, a gap-power type, continue to fight it out at first base.

Senior southpaw Paris Shewey (7-3, 3.47) is a good bet to be the closer, but Marbut is also high on the potential of frosh right-handers Brandon Williams, Taylor Williams and J.D. Leckenby out of the bullpen. Other freshmen drawing rave reviews from Marbut include third baseman Stetson Olson, shortstop Trace Tam-Sing, catcher Taylor Slaybaugh and pitcher Scott Simon.

The Cougars open the season Feb. 18-20 at Cal State-Bakersfield, then come home to face UC Santa Barbara in day games Feb. 25-27. The Palouse figures to be chilly, but the Cougars have already been practicing outside daily.

"It's been good weather for baseball," Marbut said.When someone pointed out that the ever-enthused Marbut would say the same thing if the Cougars were practicing in an igloo, the coach admitted, "That's very true."

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