“We play ’em big,” Marbut said in his typically brash manner. “That’s the only way we’re going to do it as long as I’m here.”
The Cougars open the season Friday at 22nd-ranked Arkansas, where a crowd of 7,000 or more is expected to be on hand. Due to the threat of rain Saturday, the teams will play a doubleheader today at 11:05 a.m. PST, then take Saturday off before wrapping up the series Sunday with a 9:05 a.m. game.
The Cougars follow that series with a six-game home stand that sandwiches Tuesday night games with Gonzaga around a four-game series with 16th-ranked Oklahoma next weekend.
Washington State then hits the road for eight straight games (except for a home exhibition with British Columbia on March 9), starting at No. 7 Rice and ending at No. 17 Pepperdine.
“We’re going to try to put those kids (his players) in uncomfortable positions so hopefully they become comfortable,” Marbut said. “I’m a firm believer that you can’t just raise your level of play once the Pac-10 starts, so we’re going to hit the ground running against a great, great SEC team at Arkansas.”
Pac-10 coaches picked WSU to finish eighth in a preseason poll. Marbut responded to that with his usual gusto.
“I hope they’re wrong!” he blurted. “They all have a right to their own opinion.”
The Pac-10 has long been regarded as one of, if not the best college baseball leagues in the country. Four Pac-10 teams cracked Baseball America magazine’s preseason Top 25: No. 12 UCLA, No. 13 Arizona State, No. 15 Stanford and No. 25 Oregon State.
MARBUT, PRINCE AND LANGREID (sitting) EYE BIG PROGRESS IN 2009|
Coaches made two-time defending champion Arizona State a slight favorite over UCLA in the Pac-10. WSU posted its third straight winning record last season (30-26), but finished 8-16 in the Pac-10.
“It’s a great, great conference,” Marbut said.
Starting pitching plays a huge role in the gauntlet of three-game weekend series that makes up the Pac-10 schedule. A lack of depth and/or talent in the starting rotation has often been the downfall of the Cougars since the Pac-10 combined the north and south divisions in baseball in 1999.
Since then, the Cougars -- who often dominated in the north -- have finished last six times. Marbut admits there are questions about his team’s ability to hit, and some unproven youngsters are going to have to come through in the bullpen, but he’s encouraged about WSU’s starters on the mound.
“I have confidence in the starting pitching,” said Marbut, who owns a 115-112 record (29-67 Pac-10) heading into his fifth year as WSU’s head coach. “Is it enough? I don’t know.
“The starting pitching this year is as good as it’s been any year since I’ve been here.”
Matt Way, the Alaskan who came on strong last season after leaving the bullpen, is the No. 1 starter and will take the hill Friday. The senior left-hander was 4-4 with a team-leading 4.04 earned run average last season, but he’s never been a full-time starter in college.
Marbut can only hope Way improves as much as Jayson Miller (8-1, 4.06) did during his senior year last season.
Jared Prince, the No. 2 starter out of North Kitsap High School in Poulsbo, said his right (throwing) shoulder is 100 percent for the first time since his brilliant freshman season.
“I guess this is what a real shoulder is supposed to feel like,” the affable senior joked.
Marbut said pro scouts are evenly divided about whether Prince’s pro future lies on the mound or in the outfield. Marbut and Prince said they’re also undecided, but both are confident Prince can dramatically improve on his 2008 pitching numbers (2-2, 7.78).
“His nickname’s ‘Captain Cougar’,” Marbut said. “He’s meant the world to this program.”
Chad Arnold, highly recruited out of Kennewick’s Southridge High School, experienced mixed results after coming back from arm surgery as a redshirt freshman last year. He showed enough promise to open this season as WSU’s No. 3 starter despite leading the team in losses last season (2-7, 7.67).
“He’s had some rough outings, but he’s had some really, really good outings, too,” Marbut said. “I think he’s ready to show that consistency we need.”
WSU’s infield is anchored by shortstop Shea Vucinich. The former Coeur d’Alene High standout hit .316 as a freshman starter last season, with 17 doubles, one home run and 14 errors in 52 games. He hit just .230 in Pac-10 play.
Senior Greg Lagreid (.282 batting average, three home runs, 26 RBIs) from Seattle’s O’Dea High is back behind the plate. Senior Alex Burg (.284-2-13), a graduate of Mount Rainier High in Des Moines, figures to see plenty of action at first when not spelling Lagreid.
Utilityman Michael Weber (.273-3-26), a junior out of O’Dea, will start at second until the surgically repaired shoulder of Travis Coulter (.333-1-29) comes around enough for him to move in from center field.
Tommy Richards, a promising freshman from Bend, Ore., also could see time at second.
Sophomore Matt Argyropoulos, who starred at Mark Morris High in Longview, takes over for the graduated Paul Gran at third. Angelopoulos (.222-0-4) saw very limited action last year, when Gran and first baseman Jim Murphy (another graduated senior) combined for 27 of WSU‘s 47 home runs.
Coulter, a co-captain with Prince, led the team in hitting, triples (four) and stolen bases (11) last season and made honorable mention all-conference. He’ll bat leadoff.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Marbut said of the 5-foot-8, 145-pound senior. “He’s been playing on three wheels instead of four the last two years (when he’s needed two shoulder operations).”
Junior Matt Fanelli (.231-0-7) from Olympia’s Capital High and freshman Derek Jones from Snohomish High figure to alternate between left and right field. Marbut also plans to give Fanelli some starts at first base.
Marbut hopes to limit Prince (.306-6-32), a talented right fielder, to pitching and designated hitting duties to save some wear and tear on Prince’s mind, body and soul. The ever-demanding Prince has sometimes been too hard on himself since his memorable freshman season (.401-9-58).
“Between the injuries and the pressure he put on himself, I think it just became a little too much,” Marbut said. “I’ve really seen become a more relaxed guy this year. I think he’s enjoying the process.”
That “process” will go a lot smoother for the Cougars if promising but inexperienced relief pitchers like junior right-hander Jeremy Johnson (Centralia High) and freshmen lefties Adam Conley (Olympia High), David Stilley (Central Kitsap High of Silverdale) and Rusty Shellhorn (Central Valley High of Spokane Valley) live up to their potential. Shellhorn, who was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Washington last year, might start in the home opener. Although he’s just 5-8 and 180 pounds, Shellhorn throws surprisingly hard and has an excellent curveball. He struck out a whopping 125 batters in 59 innings last year, when he went 7-3 with a 0.78 ERA for Central Valley.
Junior Seth Harvey (0-1, 5.71, no saves), a hard-throwing right-hander out of River Ridge High in Puyallup, takes over the bullpen closer job from Ross Humes (4-4, 4.39, six saves). Humes, a senior southpaw out of Decatur High in Federal Way, may be a spot starter and reliever this season.
All WSU games except the second game of the Feb. 28 doubleheader with Oklahoma will be broadcast live on KQQQ (1150 AM) of Pullman or, when there is a scheduling conflict like on Friday, KHTR (104.3 FM) of Pullman.
The radio broadcasts and video streaming are available for a fee at www.wsucougars.com. That Web site provides free live stats from all home games and some road games.