BASEBALL: WSU season begins, tourney bound?

DEREK JONES

PULLMAN – Despite losing their entire starting rotation as well as their closer, the Cougars are still one of the 64 teams that Baseball America magazine predicts will play in the NCAA tournament this year.

The process begins in earnest this Friday when WSU and Mississippi State – another one of BA's projected NCAA tourney teams – open the season with a three-game weekend series in Starkville, Miss.

Donnie Marbut, entering his eighth season as WSU's head coach, has an all-righty starting rotation that consists of a sophomore with no college starts, a junior college transfer and a true freshman.

Hard-throwing J.D. Leckenby, outstanding in relief last season (0-0, 2.28 ERA, .172 opponents batting average) as a freshman, has been named the Friday starter. JC All-American Kyle Swannack (9-0, 1.53 at Bellevue last year) is set for Saturdays. The Sunday man is Tanner Chleborad (23-7 in American Legion the past three years in South Dakota, which does not offer high school baseball).

Junior right-hander Anthony Drobnick (2-2, 5.60, one save) is the closer. Others in the bullpen include southpaws Richie Ochoa (5-2, 3.11) and Spencer Jackson (1-2, 8.35) and right-handers Kellen Camus (3-1, 5.47) and Brandon Williams (0-0, 7.00).

"I think this is a staff that will be a lot better May 18 compared to Feb. 18," Marbut said. "I think we're going to see great improvement from this staff, just because they're young."

The Cougars return nine position players who started 22 or more games on a 26-28 team that came in ninth in the Pacific-10 Conference at 10-17.

"We're really excited about our offense," Marbut said.

All-conference first baseman Taylor Ard (.337, 10 home runs, 55 RBIs) is back along with two-time all-conference honorable mention right fielder Derek Jones (.275-8-33). Both were drafted last summer, along with Chleborad.

Ard led the Pac-10 in homers, tied for the lead in RBIs, came in second in slugging percentage (.577) and tied for second in doubles (17).

"He had a great year," Marbut said, "but it wasn't like he had a great year from the beginning to the end. He went through some cold spells and some injuries."

In other words, Marbut believes the former junior college All-American can improve in his second season at WSU. The coach feels the same way about Jones, a senior who is eight shy of Jeff Hooper's school record of 40 career home runs.

"He's been a great Cougar … he's a winner," Marbut said of Jones.

Marbut's description of catcher Collin Slaybaugh and left fielder Jason Monda was identical: "One of the most talented players in the country." Both shined as freshmen starters last year, then put together huge summer seasons.

Slaybaugh hit .308 with no homers, 13 RBIs and nine stolen bases in 39 games with WSU. Baseball America ranks Slaybaugh's arm the best among Pac-12 catchers.

Monda, rated the Pac-12's third-best draft prospect for 2013 by BA, hit .291 with two homers, 20 RBIs and two stolen bases in 38 games. Look for those numbers to climb, since he dealt with mononucleosis last season.

Marbut hopes speedy center fielder Kyle Johnson (.177, 9-for-9 on steals) can finally stay healthy so he can build on the promise he's shown in summer ball.

"Kyle's as good a center fielder as anyone in the country," Marbut said.

Speedy outfielder Kyle Blackham, who hit .400 as a freshman last year in 34 games (13 starts), showed promise as a leadoff hitter late last season. Marbut said the leadoff job is "wide open." The 3-4-5 hitters appear to be Ard (Baseball America's pick as the best power hitter in the Pac-12), Jones and Monda.

Senior Tommy Richards (.256-2-14) is back at second base. Senior Patrick Clausen (.261-1-16) and sophomore Adam Nelubowich (.234-1-12) can handle third base, left or right field and designated hitter.

Trace Tam Sing (.254-0-8), a part-time starter as a freshman last year, is the starting shortstop. Marbut raved about Tam Sing's defense prior to last season, but he contributed to WSU's shaky defense by making 12 errors.

"We're going to go as far as he goes," Marbut said.

Junior outfielder-DH Brett Jacobs (.244-2-19), who struggled last season after leading the 2010 Cougars with a .340 batting average, is shaking off the rust after off-season wrist surgery.

NOTABLE NOTES:
  • All WSU games will again be broadcast on Pullman radio stations KQQQ 1150 AM or KHTR 104.3 FM. KQQQ carries this weekend's games at 4 p.m. Friday, 12:30 p.m. Saturday and 11:30 a.m. Sunday. Mississippi State video streams the games at www.hailstate.com ($12.95 for any or all of a month of MSU events).



    The Diamond Dogs return two position starters and 14 of 16 pitchers off a 38-25 club that came up one win shy of the College World Series. MSU is ranked as high as 21st in the myriad of preseason polls.

    Pac-12 coaches predict WSU will finish ninth, ahead of Washington and Utah. Colorado does not field a baseball team. Stanford is the conference favorite.

    Baseball America's Top 25 includes five Pac-12 teams: No. 2 Stanford, No. 5 Arizona, No. 14 UCLA, No. 17 Arizona State and No. 23 Oregon State. The Florida Gators, who beat Mississippi State at the Super Regionals and lost to SEC rival South Carolina in the College World Series finals, open at No. 1.

    Sophomore right-hander Ben Bracewell, 0-2 with a 5.50 ERA two years ago before sitting out last season with arm problems, is scheduled to make his first college start Friday for MSU. Center fielder C.T. Bradford, a Freshman All-American last season (.303-0-34) is the top returning hitter on a team with just three seniors (WSU has five). MSU has sold more than 5,400 season tickets. Crowds of 2,000 or more are expected to turn out each day this weekend in temperatures in the 50s.

    After the trip to Starkville, the Cougars are scheduled to play at home the following two weekends against Nebraska-Omaha and Northern Colorado, respectively.

    Southeastern Conference coaches pick Mississippi State to finish fifth in the six-team West Division. The Diamond Dogs were tabbed for last a year ago, and they wound up ranked 15th in the nation. SEC teams have won the past three national championships.
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