Cougs' Derek Jones has found the zone

FOR THREE YEARS, Derek Jones seemed to die a thousand deaths every time he failed to achieve perfection on the baseball diamond for Washington State. No one ever questioned Jones' effort, they only questioned if that effort was always channeled properly. Well...

Jones is answering any and all questions about his game with career-best numbers that make him an early candidate for Player of the Year in the Pacific-12 Conference.

"My approach to the game; I'm getting smarter," Jones said prior to practice Wednesday afternoon. "Being a senior, I'm learning the ins and outs of college baseball and this league. I'm not getting so beat up about the downs, and I'm riding the highs a little bit longer."

The highs have come frequently this spring. A burly right fielder whose intensity reflects his days as a running back and linebacker at Snohomish High, Jones leads the Cougars and ranks among the Pac-12 leaders with a .370 batting average, .691 slugging percentage, .453 on-base percentage, 1.144 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, five home runs, five doubles, three triples and 22 RBIs in 21 games. In addition, he's 5-for-5 in stolen bases and has yet to make an error.

"I tried too hard (in the past)," Jones said. "I kind of had that football mentality of just trying to ‘go get it.' I think now I'm relaxing a lot more and letting the game come to me. Playing every game like it's a new day, every at bat like it's a new at bat."

Jones is just three away from Jeff Hooper's school record of 40 career home runs. If Jones breaks the record, he says it won't be on purpose.

"When I start trying for home runs, that's when the strikeouts pile up," Jones said. "That's when the fly balls barely leave the infield. You just try to do too much. For me, I just try to see a pitch in the zone and try to put a good swing on it. With my strength and my ability, sometimes it goes out."

Coach Donnie Marbut says Jones, a three-time honorable mention all-conference player, has developed into an excellent team leader. Of course, if the Baltimore Orioles had come up with enough money after drafting him in the 13th round last summer, Jones' college career would be finished.

"He'll be more prepared for pro ball this year than last," Marbut said.

After hitting 12 home runs in each of his first two seasons at WSU, Jones' homer total dropped to eight last year after the NCAA mandated deader bats. Jones' batting average slipped from .309 to .275 (he hit .223 as a freshman), and he drove in a career-low 33 RBIs.

Jones' first two college teams were the first two WSU squads to advance to regionals since 1990. Last year's team stayed home with a 28-30 record.

"He had a good year last year," Marbut said, "but he's the type of kid that put last year (the team's disappointing season) on his shoulders. He feels responsibility for us underachieving, and not a lot of kids do that. Last year," Jones said, "I felt like I wrapped my game around other people's games too much. I tried to help people and wasn't really focused on myself."

After playing 12 straight games on the road, the Cougars (12-10, 2-4 Pac-12) play nine in a row at home except for next Tuesday's game at Gonzaga.

USC (15-8, 2-4), tied for ninth with the Cougars, provides the opposition for WSU's first Pac-12 home games this weekend. Rain is possible, so the Bailey-Brayton Field artificial turf could come in handy for games at 5:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. Sunday.

WSU left fielder Abam Nelubowich hopes to extend his 13-game hitting streak, and the Cougars want to add to their league-leading 29 double plays. WSU ranked 14th in the latest NCAA Division I statistics (through Sunday) with 25 DP's.

The first 500 fans receive a free Cougars baseball T-shirt Friday, and WSU faculty and staff gain admission for just $2. The family plan admits two adults and two students to the game, and they receive four hot dogs and four sodas.

Football coach Mike Leach throws out the ceremonial first pitch Saturday. Baseball cards honoring former WSU football and baseball player Steve Gleason will be distributed all weekend, and Team Gleason T-shirts will be on sale.

Marbut knew there would be some ups and downs with a starting pitching rotation lacking anyone with a Division I start coming into the season. Sure enough, sophomore J.D. Leckenby (3-3, 3.51), freshmen Joe Pistorese (1-2, 1.56) and Tanner Chleborad (1-0, 6.33) and and junior college transfer Kyle Swannack (2-2, 5.93) have run hot and cold in their starts.

Marbut said Chleborad may have pushed himself back into the Pac-12 weekend rotation ahead of Swannack for Sunday's game. Chleborad threw six shutout innings in an 11-1 rout of Long Beach State on Monday night.

Chleborad's older brother, Jason, a U.S. Marine, was killed in an auto accident last month.

"I'm proud that he bounced back," Marbut said.

The Cougars scored five runs in the top of the first Monday against LBSU after jumping on the freeway right after a 10-4 afternoon romp at sixth-ranked UCLA.

"To beat a Top 10 team convincingly, get on a bus and play that well (Monday) is a great accomplishment," Marbut said.

Washington State has defeated three Top 10 teams (including No. 8 Cal State-Fullerton and No. 6 Arizona). After opening the Pac-12 season with Leckenby's 6-0 win at Arizona, the Cougars lost four straight games by a combined score of 44-22.

WSU gave up 12 runs in each of their last three losses before Swannack beat UCLA with four innings of one-run relief help from 6-foot-7 right-hander Scott Simon. The latter, a hard- throwing redshirt freshman, played for ex-Cougars outfielder Larry Poffenroth's twin brother, Barry, at Central Valley High in Spokane Valley.

Marbut raved about Simon ("He's going to be a good one") and the entire team after Monday's double-dip.

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