This week in Cougar baseball: Pac-12 play

PULLMAN-- Fresh off a four-game sweep of Sacred Heart, the Cougars have to be feeling good with a very respectable 11-5 record on the season. But the competition level takes a major leap up this week with the beginning of conference play. The Cougs have won five in a row and seven of eight and it would be a great time to stay hot, as Washington State takes on No. 6 Southern Cal in Los Angeles.

"I think it's always good to win games. That's what you're judged on. I've liked their maturity of just staying even-keel," head coach Donnie Marbut said Tuesday. "They haven't seemed too high or too low after any games that we've played this year. I hope they're proud of what they did, and I hope they can use yesterday as an off-day to move on and get ready for a new week and a new challenge."

The Cougs' non-conference record might have seemed unlikely at the beginning of the season with such a young roster - there are 16 true freshmen on the roster. But that freshmen class is receiving valuable playing time and for the most part, acting as the glue for this WSU squad. Freshman infielders Jack Strunc and Shane Matheny have each played in all 16 games, and Matheny has started every single one. Matheny went 5 for 15 with 3 RBI last weekend against Sacred Heart. He homered in the series finale.

Strunc has scored a team-high 15 runs and has an on-base percentage of .328. And sophomore outfielder Cameron Frost (pictured above) is driving them home. Frost leads the team with 15 RBIs, following a freshman season in which he played 38 games and drove in a total of three runs.

The offense collectively shelled Sacred Heart's Robbie Maguire in the second game of the series, tagging the senior for six runs in 2 1/3 innings. The Cougars won that matchup 14-2. Maguire came into the game with an ERA below 2.00.

The underclassmen aren't just making an impact on the offensive side. The pitching staff has benefited from young guns like sophomore closer Ian Hamilton, who continues to shine like he did last season. His 0.96 ERA is the best on the team, and he has six saves already.

Freshman right-handers Ryan Walker and Colby Nealy have shut down opposing hitters. They have combined for 12 appearances and 21 1/3 innings, and have ERA's hovering around 2.50. Walker has struck out 14 and walked three, while Nealy has seven K's and no walks. Both are holding opponents to a batting average below .270.

Based on the performance of his team so far, Marbut said he doesn't really know how to gauge the progress the Cougars have made. He said they played Sacred Heart at a time when the Pioneers did not have as much going for them. However, Marbut said he is dedicated to the process of achieving greatness, and that he wants to instill a relentless attitude for competing at the highest level.

"I don't know where we're supposed to be. It's a brand new team, they're somewhat inexperienced. The only think I know is I think I know the way to go about it, and we're trying to do that to the best of our ability," Marbut said.

The week ahead: The Trojans are the opposite in terms of experience. USC has half as many true freshmen on its roster as does WSU, and 16 of its players are juniors or above.

This will be the toughest weekend by far for the Cougars this season. Nationally-ranked USC enters the series with a 15-2 record and sits atop the Pac-12 conference standings. They are fresh off of a 6-2 loss to UC Irvine on Tuesday.

The Trojans will play the Cougars in Los Angeles, where USC is a perfect 12-0 this season. And this will be many CougFans first chance to see Wazzu play live.

The three-game series begins Friday at 6 p.m. The teams meet again on Saturday at 6 p.m. and The finale is scheduled for Sunday at 3 p.m.

The last two games will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.

"Every weekend in our conference, you get to play great teams. Right now, USC just happens to be the hottest team in the country, and happens to be in our league," Marbut said.

The Trojans have a lot of things going for them, said Marbut, including good players, good coaching, good facilities and good weather -- that last item allows them to have played all but five games this season at home.

Last year, the Cougars took two of three from the Trojans, who entered the series ranked No. 24 in the land. USC wound up finishing sixth in the conference standings last year, just ahead of the seventh-place Cougars.

The pressure this weekend will be on senior catcher P.J. Jones to stop the Trojans' aggressive baserunning. USC has stolen 45 bases in 53 attempts, compared to the Cougars' 20-for-29 clip. Jones has thrown out four of 28 base-stealers this season.

Jones has been productive at the plate for the Cougars, though. He owns a .484 on-base percentage. He has 13 hits, second only to fellow senior Ian Sagdal who has 19 )and who also has a .484 OBP).

The main man swiping bases this season is actually the Trojans' catcher, senior Garrett Stubbs, who is 13 for 15 in the department. Stubbs is hitting .446 in 65 at-bats with 29 hits, 15 runs, a .477 slugging percentage, and a .520 on-base percentage.

Five other regular USC players are batting at least .300. Junior infielder A.J. Ramirez, a .250 hitter, has hit a team-high three home runs.

A couple of southpaws have posted stalwart numbers for the Trojans this season. Junior Marc Huberman has earned a 3-1 record in nine appearances out of the bullpen. He has allowed one unearned run this season, striking out 13 and walking five. Junior Kyle Twomey is 3-0 in four starts with a 2.49 ERA and a team-best 25 1/3 innings. Twomey has 23 strikeouts to go with six walks, and is holding opposing hitters to a .244 batting average.

WSU's two senior starters, Sean Hartnett and Joe Pistorese, have hit a groove recently. The two have a combined 5-2 record in eight total starts, and they both have ERA's under 3.70. The two have logged 40 2/3 total innings. Hartnett's strikeout-to-walk ratio is 22:4, similar to junior reliever Matt Bower's 22:6. Bower is 4-0 in eight appearances.

Hartnett will start Friday for the Cougars, Pistorese will start Saturday, and Nick Leonard will get the ball on Sunday.

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