The Cougars, loaded with key players who helped Washington State qualify for the NCAA tournament the past two years, are 14-17 overall and 2-10 in the Pac-10.
The remaining schedule is top-heavy with home games against teams in the bottom half of the Pac-10 standings. First, however, the last-place Cougars visit first-place Oregon State (27-7, 8-1). The Cougars have lost three straight games; the Beavers have won nine in a row.
“Hottest team in the country, no question about that,” Washington State coach Donnie Marbut said.
A handful of WSU’s trademark, come-from-behind wins have provided recent hope for a late turnaround. That hope has been dimmed by the fact that WSU has struggled in one or more of all three major facets of play -- hitting, pitching and defense -- much of the season.
Few Cougars have improved from a year ago, at least statistically. A notable exception is senior third baseman Matt Argyropoulos, who is batting a team-high .330 with four home runs after hitting .272 with three homers last season. Also, middle reliever Richie Ochoa sports a 3-1 record and 3.22 earned run average after going 2-2 with a 6.21 ERA last year as a redshirt freshman in 2010.
Junior pitcher Adam Conley (4-4, 3.05) has often been dominant, and his combination of 60 strikeouts and 10 walks in 65 innings ranks among the nation’s best. Redshirt sophomore first baseman Taylor Ard (.315 with a team-high 29 RBIs), a junior college transfer, has been a solid addition.
Junior right fielder Derek Jones (.276, five home runs) leads the team in long balls for the third straight year. Freshman center fielder-left fielder Jason Monda (.301, 15 RBIs) has demonstrated great promise at the plate and in the field.
Three players who have excelled in the past -- pitcher Chad Arnold (0-3, 7.65 in five games), shortstop-second baseman Cody Bartlett (.314, 10 runs) and catcher Jay Ponciano (.233, four RBIs) -- have not enjoyed big senior seasons. All three players have dealt with injuries at times since the end of last season.
Fellow senior Paris Shewey is 1-0 with six saves (tied for the league lead), but his 4.58 ERA is obviously not what one wants from a closer. Left fielder-designated hitter Brett Jacobs, who led Washington State with a .340 batting average as a freshman last year, has slipped to .262.
The Oregon State series marks the end of a stretch of 21 contests in which 20 of the games involved a Top 25 opponent.
“Nobody cares … (but) it has been a definite grind,” Marbut said.
The coach said WSU’s preseason goals, including a third straight trip to the 64-team NCAA tournament, are still within reach.
“The only way they’re attainable is to play some good baseball,” Marbut said. “We have 23 games left.”
The Cougars and Oregon State play Thursday through Saturday, rather than the Pac-10 norm of Friday through Sunday, because Easter is Sunday. Saturday’s game will be telecast at 4:30 p.m. Sunday on Root Sports (formerly Fox Sports Northwest).
After Saturday, the Cougars play 15 of their next 16 games at home, starting Monday and Tuesday against Brigham Young. The Washington Huskies come to town April 29-May 1.
WSU has scored just 17 runs over the past seven games. The four runs Washington State scored Sunday in a 10-4 loss at Arizona State marked the Cougars’ second-highest total in Pac-10 play this year. WSU beat Stanford 10-8 on April 1.
With Mark Hendrickson (Norfolk, Va.) and Eddie Bonine (Lehigh Valley, Pa.) now pitching in the Class AAA International League, there are no Cougars in the major leagues for the first time since 1947.
Former WSU relief pitcher Jeremy Johnson was released after two years in the Cleveland Indians farm system. Former Cougars infielder Michael Weber, an Arizona Diamondbacks farmhand, will miss the 2011 season due to knee surgery. Former Wazzu pitching standout Matt Way continues to deal with back issues. The Philadelphia Phillies farmhand has been sidelined since mid-season last year.