Baseball Preview: Washington State

The Cardinal open their Pac-10 schedule this weekend when they host Washington State for three games beginning Saturday afternoon. Stanford, ranked 17th in the country, returns from a 12-day break for final exams. Meanwhile, the Cougars, picked last this year in the conference, have surprised many by jumping out to an 18-6 start to the season. Here is a complete series preview.

The Washington State Cougars look to prove their turnaround is legitimate starting this weekend when they take on the Stanford Cardinal in a three-game series.  After a season in which they finished a dismal 1-23 in conference play, the Cougars have proven to be a completely different ballclub this year.  WSU has racked up an impressive 18-6 non-conference record this season and now get set to open their Pac-10 slate versus the Cardinal.

Head coach Donnie Marbut took over the struggling program up in Pullman in 2005 and suffered through a very difficult first season.  It should be noted that last year's Washington State club was not their worst this decade despite winning just once in 24 conference games.  The excellent top-to-bottom strength in the conference definitely contributed to the poor record.  Washington State has shown slight signs of improvement over the last few seasons and now are looking to take that big step forward in '06.

It's so far, so good for Marbut and the Cougs.  The head man brought in a whopping 19 newcomers this year and is using the performances of many of those players plus a few key holdovers to post that sizzling 18-6 record.  Washington State is near the top of the conference in most statistical categories.  Their .326 team batting average is second only to USC while their 3.32 ERA is the top mark in the Pac-10.  They score 8.8 runs per game and feature two starting pitchers with some of the best numbers on the west coast.

However, before going any further, it's very important to note the non-conference schedule Washington State has played.  It's flat-out dreadful.  Of their 24 games, none have been played against teams currently ranked in the top 25.  Their only two games against NCAA Tournament-caliber teams have come against Missouri (win) and Fresno State (loss).  Washington State's strength of schedule number is a pathetic 214.  Contrast that to Stanford and their #6 SOS and it's really tough to compare statistics.  Bottom line, while the Cougars have posted very impressive numbers across the board, it's going to take a few series' versus Pac-10 competition to really gauge how strong or weak a team this is.

That said, there is some definite talent on this ballclub.  The starting rotation features one of the most experienced arms in the conference in junior right-hander Wayne Daman, Jr.  Daman, Jr. made 14 starts last year and compiled a 7-6 record with a 4.91 ERA over 84 innings.  After an impressive summer in Alaska, he was expected to lead this WSU staff and thus far has come through.  Daman, Jr. has allowed one earned run or fewer in four of his first five starts and brings a 2.38 ERA into this weekend's matchup.  And in a move to perhaps maximize their chances of garnering at least one win this weekend, Marbut has announced that Daman, Jr. will start the Monday series finale (against a Stanford pitcher yet to be determined).

The other two starting pitchers the Cardinal will see this weekend are Mike Wagner on Saturday and Nick Ison on Sunday.  Wagner is one of the many experienced newcomers on this WSU team as he comes to Pullman from Vanderbilt.  A junior right-hander, Wagner put up very solid numbers in the competitive SEC in 2005.  Over 42 innings with the Commodores, Wagner went 3-0 with a 3.61 ERA and an eye-catching 49 strike outs.  He's been a bit inconsistent with Washington State this year as evident by his 5.34 ERA through six starts.  However, Wagner has plenty of experience going up against top-notch competition throughout his collegiate career.  He started the game against Missouri last month and fired six quality innings with just one run and five hits allowed.

Ison is an intriguing pitcher off to an excellent start.  The third junior right-hander in this rotation, Ison is in his first year with the Cougars after a standout career at Salt Lake CC.  He earned Conference Pitcher of the Year honors last spring and has continued that strong momentum at the Division I collegiate level.  Standing only 5'9" tall, Ison has compiled a 2.92 ERA this year with just six walks (compared to 32 K's) in 37 innings.  The numbers are impressive, but Sunday's contest will easily be Ison's biggest test of the season to this point.

The Cougars have received quality starting pitching all season long - primarily from Daman, Jr. and Ison - but it's their offense that is probably the strength of the club.  Washington State is a scrappy offensive team that is capable of scoring runs in bunches.  They don't hit a lot of home runs (14 HR in 24 games), but make a lot of contact and put plenty of pressure on an opposing pitching staff.

Case in point, WSU has already stolen a remarkable 52 bases this year (compared to just 11 by the Cardinal).  Nearly every player in the lineup is a stolen base threat and you can bet Marbut will continue to be aggressive this weekend. 

One of the top hitters in the conference resides in the #3 spot in their batting order.  Senior left fielder Jay Miller, who has an excellent chance to finish his career #1 all-time at WSU in hits, is off to a red-hot start.  Miller hit safely in the first 18 games of the season and brings a .423 batting average into this weekend.  He's yet to hit a home run, but he typifies the Cougars offensive attack as someone who hits a lot of doubles, steals a lot of bases, and is tough to strike out. 

Miller has already smacked 18 doubles this year (by contrast, Stanford's leader has five - Rapoport).  He's stolen 11 bases while he's also struck out just three times in 115 plate appearances.  Miller hit over .300 in each of his first three years with Washington State and has a history of tremendous success versus Stanford.

Miller is surrounded in the lineup by newcomers.  Clean-up man Jared Prince is the club's leading hitter at .449.  He's racked up 11 doubles, one home run, and a team-best 26 RBI.  Also a pitcher, Prince has not allowed an earned run in 18 innings this year in action as both a starter and a reliever.  He's only a freshman, so expect plenty of big things from Jared Prince in the years to come.

Setting the table are two more newcomers in JC transfer Paul Gran and freshman Travis Coulter.  Gran, a sophomore shortstop, is hitting .312 while Coulter, a freshman second baseman, brings a .361 average into the weekend.  Coulter has also struck out just three times all year.

Again, it's hard to know what to make of Washington State's stellar numbers.  Their schedule has just been so poor that they could get to Pac-10 play and turn into the same Cougar club we've come accustomed to seeing in recent years.  Then again, there are a lot of new faces in Pullman this year.  Combined with a new coach, maybe it's the beginning of a turnaround that will make WSU a contender in the Pac-10 for the first time since the merger in 1999.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Paul Gran, SS  (So., 312, 0 HR, 13 RBI, 8 SB)
2. Travis Coulter, 2B  (Fr., .361, 1 HR, 11 RBI, 4 SB)
3. Jay Miller, LF  (Sr., .423, 0 HR, 20 RBI, 11 SB)
4. Jared Prince, RF  (Fr., .449, 1 HR, 26 RBI, 5 SB)
5. Zach McAngus, DH  (Sr., .333, 2 HR, 20 RBI, 2 SB)
6. Jeff Miller, 3B  (Jr., .326, 4 HR, 22 RBI, 10 SB)
7. Jim Murphy, 1B  (So., .341, 3 HR, 23 RBI, 2 SB)
8. Simi Reynolds, CF  (So., .290, 1 HR, 11 RBI, 5 SB)
9. Greg Lagreid, C  (Fr., .130, 0 HR, 5 RBI, 0 SB)

Sat- Mike Wagner, RHP  (Jr., 2-3, 5.34 ERA, 32 IP, 7 BB, 26 SO)
Sun- Nick Ison, RHP  (Jr., 4-1, 2.92 ERA, 37 IP, 6 BB, 32 SO)
Mon- Wayne Daman, Jr., RHP  (Jr., 5-0, 2.38 ERA, 34 IP, 10 BB, 39 SO)

Notes: Coulter has hit safely in five straight games (9-for-19, .474 AVG) ... Jay Miller's best year came in 2004 as a sophomore when he hit .355 ... His 263 career hits is tied for fourth all-time at WSU (41 behind leader) ... Prince is an early contender for Pac-10 Freshman of the Year (in 18 innings pitched, he has zero walks and 14 strike outs) ... McAngus is one of the few veterans on this team with past experience in Pullman (started the last two years for the Cougars) ... He's hitting .500 (9-for-18) in his last four games ... Jeff Miller is the younger brother of Jay and is currently leading the team with four home runs ... He's also a perfect 10-for-10 in stolen bases (meaning the brothers are 21-for-23 between them) ... Reynolds is a transfer from rival school University of Washington.

The Cardinal return from their 12-day break for final exams this weekend to begin the Pac-10 portion of their schedule.  Ranked 17th in the country, Stanford is 11-7 on the year (7-3 at Sunken Diamond).  Two weeks ago, the Cardinal dropped two-of-three games to USC as the Trojans bounced back from a series-opening loss to post 16-7 and 7-2 victories.  Stanford went 4-4 on their season-long eight-game roadtrip (Fresno State, California, USC) and will play their first home games since February 21st.

The Cardinal pitching staff will be looking to bounce back after a difficult final two games down in Los Angeles.  Greg Reynolds has been very consistent in the #1 spot in the weekend rotation as he brings a 3.11 ERA into this series.  Reynolds has recorded 35 strike outs (compared to just eight walks) over 37 2/3 innings and continues to gain mention as a potential first round draft pick this June.

Sophomore right-hander David Stringer will get the ball on Sunday afternoon in the second game of this series.  A walk-on from across the street at Palo Alto High School, Stringer has come out of nowhere this season after not pitching in a single game as a freshman.  In two starts and three relief appearances thus far, Stringer has posted a 2.45 ERA and an amazing 12-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (18 IP, 2 BB, 24 SO).  Reynolds and Stringer were basically the only two pitchers who enjoyed extended success in the USC series and will front the Cardinal rotation entering Pac-10 play.

Stanford has yet to announce a starting pitcher for Monday's series finale.  Senior Matt Manship (0-2, 5.92 ERA, 24 1/3 IP) had been the #2 starter up to this point in the year.  Junior Matt Leva (1-0, 5.50 ERA, 18 IP) has also garnered four Sunday starts already this season.  Whether Coach Marquess turns to one of those players to start on Monday or possibly another reliever remains to be seen.

Offensively, the Cardinal are batting just .265 as a team.  However, they had a solid roadtrip swinging the bats posting seven double-digit hit totals in the eight games (series finale at USC was the exception).  Senior shortstop Chris Minaker has become the team-leader offensively with his .368 batting average and club-best totals of three home runs and 22 RBI.  Minaker has hit safely in 11 consecutive games batting a cool .469 (23-for-49) during the streak.

Marquess has used plenty more hitters this year as opposed to last trying to take advantage of improved depth.  15 different players have seen regular playing time in the field.

This has been an incredibly one-sided series of late as the Cardinal have won 23 straight games versus the Cougars dating back to 1978.  More recently, Stanford has posted seven straight three-game sweeps since the teams started playing conference games in 1999.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Joey August, LF  (Fr., .333, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB)
2. Jim Rapoport, CF  (Jr., .242, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 1 SB)
3. Chris Minaker, SS  (Sr., .368, 3 HR, 22 RBI, 3 SB)
4. Michael Taylor, RF  (So., .306, 1 HR, 14 RBI, 1 SB)
5. John Hester, C  (Sr., .219, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 2 SB)
6. Randy Molina, 1B  (So., .438, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB)
7. Brent Milleville, DH  (Fr., .258, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 0 SB)
8. Chris Lewis, 2B  (Sr., .217, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 1 SB)
9. Cord Phelps, 3B  (Fr., .268, 0 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB)

Sat- Greg Reynolds, RHP  (Jr., 1-1, 3.11 ERA, 37 2/3 IP, 8 BB, 35 SO)
Sun- David Stringer, RHP  (So., 2-2, 2.45 ERA, 18 1/3 IP, 2 BB, 24 SO)
Mon- TBA

Notes: August has been garnering all the playing time of late against right-handed pitching ... Ryan Seawell earned a start in left field versus a lefty in the USC series finale and delivered three hits in four at-bats ... He's hitting .308 (8-for-26) for the season ... Rapoport has attempted just three stolen bases this season (after stealing a team-high 16 last year) ... Taylor has just one hit over his last 13 at-bats spanning four games ... Molina saw significant action against the Trojans and totaled five hits in ten AB's ... Milleville hit his first career home run in the Sunday loss at USC.

* Stanford has thus far improved tremendously in close games this year.  The Cardinal are 5-2 this season in one-run contests.  17 of their 25 losses last year came by one or two runs.

* Washington State's team ERA last year was a lofty 6.17 - last in the conference.  Their 3.32 ERA this year is the top mark entering play this weekend.

* The Cougars, in addition to stealing a lot of bases, get hit by a ton of pitches.  In numbers similar (if not greater) to what's used to be seen by Cal State Fullerton clubs, WSU batters have been hit by 53 pitches through their first 24 games.  Murphy (11) and Gran (9) lead the way.

* Washington State has played just five of their first 24 games at home.  The Cougars have participated in four round-robin tournaments this year :
- Charleston, South Carolina
- Sacramento/Davis, California
- Pullman, Washington / Lewiston, Idaho
- Fresno, California
The tournaments have accounted for 17 of their first 24 games.

* As mentioned above, WSU's strength of schedule currently resides at 214.  That's just behind Saint Mary's, Northern Iowa, and Indiana State.  And just ahead of schools such as Lafayette, Jacksonville, and Dallas Baptist.  For reference, the closest current Pac-10 SOS is Oregon State at all the way up at #63.  Stanford's is currently #6.

* The Cougars non-conference schedule has seen them play the likes of Hawaii-Hilo (four games, 3-1 record), Chicago State (four games, 3-1), Kennesaw State (one game, 0-1), East Tennessee State (one game, 1-0), BYU (one game, 1-0), Lewis-Clark State (one game, 1-0), and Bucknell (one game, 1-0).

* Last year, Stanford also opened their Pac-10 slate versus WSU.  In early-April in Pullman, the Cardinal easily won the first two games by the scores of 14-5 and 11-4 before a narrow 8-6 victory in the series finale.

* Washington State is not a strong defensive team having committed 39 errors this season for a below-than-average .958 fielding percentage.

(records through games of Thu. 3/23)

                   Conf.   GB   Overall
USC                 2-1    -    15-11
Washington State    0-0   0.5   18-6
Arizona State       0-0   0.5   18-7
Washington          0-0   0.5   17-7
Stanford            0-0   0.5   11-7
UCLA                0-0   0.5   15-11
California          0-0   0.5   12-10
Arizona             0-0   0.5   10-11
Oregon State        1-2   1.0   12-7

* This Week's Results:
Monday -
at Washington 9, Cal Poly 8  (Mustangs win series, 2-1)

Tuesday -
at California 8, Sacramento State 2
USC 14, at Loyola Marymount 4

Wednesday -
at Washington 5, Puget Sound 4

* This Weekend:
Pac-10 Games -
Washington State at Stanford (Saturday-Monday)
Washington at California (Friday-Sunday)

Non-Conference -
UC Irvine at Arizona (Saturday-Sunday)
Penn State at Arizona State (Friday-Sunday)
Utah Valley State at Oregon State (Friday-Sunday)
(UCLA off)
(USC off)

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