WSU baseball fall report

THE COUGS’ TOP three hitters turned pro along with a key pitcher and the starting shortstop. Another starting pitcher graduated, as did a relief pitcher who led the team in wins. One season after falling far short of the team’s goal of playing in the NCAA baseball tournament, the Washington State Cougars are loaded with youth and inexperience.

And that is rarely a combination that bodes well for the mighty Pac-12 Conference, but WSU veteran head coach Donnie Marbut sounds as fired up and enthusiastic as ever about Cougars baseball.

“It’s a large, talented freshman class,” Marbut said. “We started that ‘bridge program’ for the first time. That will pay benefits for our program.”

The “bridge program” brings in new players early for summer classes and training. Marbut said all 14 incoming freshmen who signed letters of intent bypassed summer ball to spend time in Pullman. NCAA coaches are not permitted to provide baseball instruction to their players in the summer.

It also appears that Marbut picked the ideal year to take advantage of the NCAA program that permits teams to gain experience by playing internationally once every four years. The Cougars will spend a week playing against major league baseball academy players in the Dominican Republic during the Thanksgiving break from classes.

“It should be a really good thing for our program,” Marbut said.

Marbut chose to delay the start of fall training until Oct. 1 -- about a month later than usual -- so practices can run without interruption leading up to the trip to the Dominican. Practices are held four days a week.

WSU’s top returning players include senior starting pitcher Joe Pistorese (pictured above), sophomore relief pitcher Ian Hamilton and junior left fielder Ben Roberts.

Pistorese (4-3, 3.31), a crafty southpaw, was the Cougars’ No. 1 starter much of last season. The hard-throwing Hamilton (2-2, 2.70) saved a school-record 15 games to earn Freshman All-America honors. Roberts, a gifted athlete, is the club’s top returning hitter (.289) and RBI man (21 in 50 games) .

Marbut said those three players have jobs nailed down at this point along with senior catcher P.J. Jones (.213), sophomore center fielder Cameron Frost (.226) and freshman shortstop Jack Strunc from Highlands Ranch, Colo. Frost is coming off a big summer season in Alaska.

Others bidding for starting jobs include senior second baseman Ian Sagdal (.269), junior first baseman-third baseman Patrick McGrath (.229), sophomore second baseman Shea Donlin (.235 in 2013 before redshirting last season) and freshman third baseman Shane Matheny from Bremerton. Freshmen outfielders Derek Chapman from Issaquah and Daniel Fredrickson from Woodinville show promise.

Marbut hopes to follow Pistorese in the rotation with sophomore left-hander Layne Bruner (0-1, 10.54) – “The big X factor” -- and freshman right-hander Nick Leonard. Both pitchers have been drafted by major league teams. Leonard was a high school teammate of Strunc.

Marbut said he would prefer to keep senior right-hander Sam Triece (1-2, 2.42) and junior right-hander Matt Bower (2-2, 5.30) in set-up roles out of the bullpen. Senior right-hander Sean Hartnett (2-1, 3.67) is a proven reliever who also could be a spot starter.

“This could be the best bullpen we’ve ever had,” Marbut said.

Marbut said Tyler McDowell, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound freshman from Puyallup, “might have the highest upside of anyone” on the Cougars. A wrist injury and mononucleosis has limited McDowell, who has been playing first base but might wind up adding outfield and/or pitching duties in the future.

Marbut said a long-awaited clubhouse at Bailey-Brayton Field is tentatively scheduled to go up prior to the 2016 season. The coach said alums and former players have been key contributors toward the estimated cost of $7 million-8 million. Marbut estimates approximately $3 million has been raised thus far, and he hopes little or no financial assistance will be required of the athletic department.

Bailey-Brayton, once the crown jewel of college baseball stadiums in the Pacific Northwest, has fallen behind the homes of 2014 NCAA tournament qualifiers Washington, Oregon State and Oregon. Coincidentally or not, the Cougars (24-30 overall last season, including 14-16 in the Pac-12) have not posted winning overall or conference records or gone to the NCAA tournament since 2010.

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