BASEBALL: WSU opens Pac-12 play at No. 6 UA

IAN SAGDAL

THE WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS, who envision themselves playing starring roles on the big stage of college baseball, open Pacific-12 Conference play Friday at one of the most memorable ballparks in Hollywood history.

Hi Corbett Field, the former spring training home of the Cleveland Indians and the site of many spring training scenes in the late '80s baseball movie "Major League," will be the scene of the Pac-12 opener for WSU and the sixth-ranked Arizona Wildcats.

The Wildcats moved to Hi Corbett from their longtime campus stadium this year. Alcohol is served at games, and Arizona fans have partied hardy during the Wildcats' 14-3 start. Arizona's crowds have ranged from 1,248 to nearly 4,000.

"It's good for college baseball," WSU coach Donnie Marbut said Thursday.

You OK with the alcohol, Coach?

"As long as your players aren't doing it," Marbut cracked.

The 9-6 Cougars face a tough task Friday with third-team All-American Kurt Heyer scheduled to take the mound for Arizona. Heyer, a junior right-hander, is 4-0 with a 0.58 earned run average. Last season, he ranked fourth in NCAA Division I with 134 strikeouts.

"He's real good," Marbut said. "He's 90-92 (mph with his fastball), and he throws three or four pitches for strikes. He's competitive, he's athletic. He's what (J.D.) Leckenby's going to be a year from now."

That's high praise for Leckenby, who has established himself as WSU's No. 1 starter one year after starring in relief as a freshman. Leckenby (2-2, 3.27) gets the ball on Friday at 6 p.m., followed by two freshmen – Tanner Chleborad (0-0, 6.92) on Saturday at 6 and Joe Pistorese (1-1, 1.50) on Sunday at noon.

Junior college transfer Kyle Swannack (1-1, 5.00) has been dropped from the rotation, at least temporarily.

The Cougars have been wildly inconsistent on offense. They'll need to produce this weekend, because Arizona is batting .335 with 49 extra-base hits (just two homers – Hi Corbett is spacious) and 41 stolen bases. The Cougars are batting .292 with 46 extra-base hits (including nine homers) and 28 steals.

IN PERHAPS THEIR best win of the young season, WSU had 15 hits in an 11-inning, 9-8 win at eighth-ranked Cal State Fullerton on Tuesday. But they followed it up by mustering just two hits in a 6-0 loss at UC Irvine on Wednesday.

"We're too up and down," Marbut said. "We have to show more consistency offensively, especially with a young pitching staff … (we need) to take some pressure off those guys."

Right fielder Derek Jones (.327, 14 RBIs) and first baseman Taylor Ard (.322, 11 RBIs) are in a group tied for first in the Pac-12 with four home runs.

"They're obviously accomplished hitters," Marbut said.

Marbut said catcher Collin Slaybaugh (.294) is questionable for the weekend, at least in the field, after feeling pain in his shoulder last week at UNLV. Shortstop Trace Tam Sing is battling back from a shoulder injury and now has the flu.

Tam Sing's health woes at short opened the door for freshman Ian Sagdal out of Eastmont High in East Wenatchee. Sagdal leads the Cougars with a .378 batting average and a .439 on-base percentage (just ahead of second baseman Tommy Richards at .370 and .433, respectively), and Sagdal has yet to make an error in 57 chances.

"We knew he was a gamer," Marbut said. "He's surprised us a little bit on the defensive end."

Sagdal has helped the Cougars post a league-leading .985 fielding percentage. WSU has made just nine errors, compared to 23 for its opponents.

NEW CLOSER Anthony Drobnick (2-0, 0.00) has been rock solid. In six appearances, he's given up no runs and four hits while striking out seven in 10 1/3 innings. Opponents are hitting just .129 off the junior from Seattle Prep.

As an added bonus, Drobnick grabbed a bat Tuesday and earned a walk in the 11th inning at Fullerton. He's the first WSU pitcher to reach base safely since 1996.

Marbut said left fielder Brett Jacobs, WSU's leading hitter as a freshman two years ago, will redshirt due to his slow recovery from a wrist operation.

"With him redshirting, we'll get him for two more years," Marbut said. "We'll take a guy like that all day long."

In the Pac-12 preseason coaches poll, Arizona was picked to finish second behind Stanford. WSU was picked for ninth, ahead of Washington and Utah (Colorado does not offer baseball).

The Cougars return to Pullman for a non-league game with Gonzaga on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. – WSU's only home game in a 25-day span -- then head back south next weekend to face UCLA. The USC Trojans visit Bailey-Brayton Field for a three-game series that starts March 30.

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