Road to Omaha begins Friday for Cougs

BRETT JACOBS

WASHINGTON STATE hopes their ability to make small waves allows to them to make a big splash when they open the 2011 baseball season Friday at Cal State-Bakersfield. Despite a Pac-10 conference that could be even more competitive than last year, Donnie Marbut says the Cougs have the potential to go all the way to Omaha this season.

"We have the ability to do the little things," coach Donnie Marbut said this week. "I think we're a team that can bunt, we can hit behind the runners … and we run better."

Marbut said sophomore left fielder Brett Jacobs, who led WSU with a .340 batting average last year, has improved his speed and will likely open the season batting leadoff. Jacobs stole just five bases in nine tries last season. Down the road, Marbut said, junior center fielder Kyle Johnson may wind up batting leadoff.

"He can run like nobody we've had here in my time at Washington State," Marbut said.

Johnson, an excellent fielder, hit .282 and stole just three bases in six attempts last year. Junior right fielder Derek Jones (10-for-12) was the top base stealer among this year's returnees.

The Bakersfield games begin at 2 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday.

THE COUGARS RETURN a veteran team that finished 37-22 last year after losing to Arkansas in the regional finals. Marbut said the starting rotation is the greatest strength of a team he believes has the potential to reach the College World Series.

Junior Adam Conley, a hard-throwing left-hander who left the bullpen to become an effective starter down the stretch last year, is scheduled to start Friday against Cal State-Bakersfield. Conley, whose fastball was recently clocked at 97 mph, had a 5-4 record and 3.33 earned run average last season.

Marbut said sophomore lefty Spencer Jackson (3-1, 5.00) will start Saturday at Bakersfield, followed by senior right-hander James Wise (4-1, 5.18) in Sunday's series finale. Jackson is filling in for senior right-hander Chad Arnold (5-3, 3.74), who will miss the first few weeks while recovering from an elbow injury.

The Cougars are counting on senior southpaw Paris Shewey (7-3, 3.47) and freshmen right-handers like Brandon Williams, J.D. Lackenby and Taylor Williams to work out of the bullpen.

Jones (.309 batting average, 12 homers, 49 runs batted in last season), who led the Cougars in home runs and RBIs last season, is back in right field. Scrappy senior Cody Bartlett (.323-7-34), sensational in the field at regionals last year, has moved from second base to shortstop.

Marbut said senior third baseman Matt Argyropoulos (.272-3-39) and junior second baseman Tommy Richards (.300-0-5) look better than ever. Versatile junior Patrick Claussen (.282-1-17) has been nursing a back injury.

TOP FRESHMEN include first baseman Adam Nelubowich, outfielders Jason Monda and Nate Blackham, third baseman Stetson Olson and catcher Collin Slaybaugh. Junior first baseman Taylor Ard, a junior college transfer, is another key newcomer.

Jones and Ard may be WSU's best bets to provide power. The NCAA legislated less lively metal bats this season, so Marbut figures more power-oriented teams may suffer more than the Cougars.

Slaybaugh figures to see extra playing time this weekend, since senior starter Jay Ponciano will be sidelined with oblique and rib injuries suffered in a baserunning collision at practice Sunday.

Cal State-Bakersfield, an NCAA Division I independent, posted a 26-30 record last season. The Roadrunners have just two seniors, but a number of key players return, including junior catcher Jeremy Rodriguez (.400 batting average, four home runs, 38 RBIs).

SNOW FELL IN Pullman on Tuesday, but the Cougars are scheduled to make their home debut in a weekend series Feb. 25-27 against UC Santa Barbara. WSU's Pacific-10 Conference opener is set for March 25 at California.

The Bears, Cougars and five other Pac-10 teams are ranked in some or all of the four major preseason polls. Cal is ranked as high as 17th, WSU as high as 31st. The Bears and Cougars were two of the eight Pac-10 teams that played in the 2010 NCAA tournament.

"In seven years in the Pac-10 (as WSU's head coach), this looks like it's the toughest year ever," Marbut said. "Every team has lots and lots of guys back, and it was obviously a really, really tough league last year."

NOTABLE NOTES:
  • Virtually all games will be broadcast live on Pullman's KQQQ (1150 AM) or KHTR (104.3 FM) except this weekend, due to renovations that knocked out phone lines at Bakersfield's Hardt Field. Live stats for all games are available at www.wsucougars.com. Home games not on live TV will be webcast on wsucougars.com.

  • Marbut's new weekly radio show, set for 7-8 p.m. Mondays (except March 7, when Dallas Baptist plays at WSU), will air from Pullman's South Fork Public House restaurant starting Feb. 28. Radio play-by-play man Steve Grubbs will serve as host.
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