Baseball: Cougs poised for another upswing?

WASHINGTON STATE TOOK major steps forward last season in coach Donnie Marbut's second year at the helm, going 36-23 overall and 10-14 in Pac-10 play. The Cougs, woeful since the Pac-10 merged divisions in 1999, turned heads last year and entered the final week of the season with a shot at the post-season. More than enough talent returns in 2007 for the Cougs to continue the upswing.

Offense was the strength of last season's WSU club as the Cougs hit .310 while scoring 6.9 runs per game. Eight of their 10 regulars are back, including a pair of spectacular sophomores: Outfielder/pitcher Jared Prince (.401, 9 HR, 58 RBI) of Polusbo and second baseman Travis Coulter (.345, 2 HR, 27 RBI) of Kennewick.

Prince, recently picked a 2007 pre-season All-American by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers of America, took the Pac-10 by storm as a true freshman last season. He had arguably the finest freshman campaign in WSU history, earning third-team All-America, first-team Freshman All-America, and first-team All-Pac-10 honors.

Prince led the conference in hitting with a .401 average (which also ranked 24th in the nation), and on-base percentage (.492). Prince also ranked among the Top 10 in RBIs, slugging percentage, hits, runs scored and total bases.

WSU's 36 wins were the most by a Cougar squad since 1991.

Other returning starters include junior first baseman Jim Murphy (.333, 8 HR, 46 RBI) and senior third baseman Jeff Miller (.285, 7 HR, 35 RBI).

The big loss at the plate is graduated outfielder Jay Miller (.361, 0 HR, 37 RBI) who started in all four of his seasons. He's now playing in the Philadelphia Phillies organization.


WAYNE DAMAN JR.

On the mound, WSU held its own last year and will benefit from the return of the top two starting pitchers. Prince (6-2, 4.53 ERA) and senior Wayne Daman, Jr. (6-4, 4.50 ERA). Daman has already made 31 career starts while his overall record stands at 16-14. Ace closer Travis Webb (2.17 ERA, 8 Saves) is gone to the Cincinnati Reds organization, but most other key relievers are back in 2007.

WSU certainly doesn't have as many top-level recruits as any of the other clubs in the conference, but it's hard to ignore the improvement under Marbut in his first two seasons. Plus, a substantial amount of talent returns at the plate and on the mound led by the two-way player Prince. The days of Washington State as a pushover appear over - now the question becomes, can they take the next step?

NOTABLE NOTES:

The Cougars open their 2007 season Feb. 16 when it begins a three-game series at Cal State Northridge.

Oregon State is the defending conference and NCAA champion, but many odservers of the Pac-10 think Arizona State and Stanford may challenge the Beavs for the conference title this time around.

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