WSU baseball: Lees steadfast in face of early losses

WASHINGTON STATE (4-8) has stumbled through the first three weekends of the 2016 baseball schedule. But Cougar first-year coach Marty Lees on Tuesday took a page from AD Bill Moos’ book, expressing unflinching optimism with just one series remaining before heading into Pac-12 play.

“The overall attitude is really tremendous,” said Lees. “Maybe if you’re looking from the outside in (you see) they’ve lost some games. They’ve lost some tight games. How can it be great? Well, it’s not great because there are competitors within our team. I’m confident because of the work ethic they have and the conversations we have.

“I can tell from coaching for quite a few years that this team has not given up. They won’t. They’re giving it everything they’ve got every day and we know we are going to get better.”

Twelve games into the season, the assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Cougs are apparent to Lees.

“Our depth is in the outfield,” said Lees, who without hesitation rattled off the names outfield players with the combination of speed and good bats -- third-year sophomore Dugan Shirer (.450), sophomore Derek Chapman (.389), fourth-year junior Trek Stemp (.408), junior Cameron Frost (.277) and freshman Mason Cerrillo (.321).

As the WSU head man experiments with combinations and situational substitutions, Lees is still sorting out what might be a set starting lineup with Pac-12 play just a couple of weeks away.

Reflecting on the series last weekend with Utah Valley where the Cougs lost three out of four, Lees had this to say.

“Overall, I saw some strides for the whole team throughout the weekend. We need to get in a position to where we can be consistent in all parts of the game,” said Lees.

Ian Hamilton continues to grow into the role of WSU’s Friday night pitcher, a team's No. 1 starter in the typical three-game series when conference play begins.

“I thought Ian (against Utah Valley) pitched probably his best game of the year,” said Lees. “He really commanded his fastball, his offspeed and was able to throw three pitches for strikes.”

And the evolution of his pitching staff?

“We’ve always felt like with every team we’ve been with, you build your mound from the back-forward,” said Lees.

That philosophy points to why sophomore right hander Ryan Walker has been counted on to deliver from the bullpen. Lees has considered Walker for one of his starters, but said he’s very happy with the performance of his starters – Hamilton, Parker McFadden and Ryan Ward -- up to now.

A healthy roster might be the key factor to the success of any college baseball team. No question that component reared it’s head during the first home stand for WSU.

“We lose (Patrick McGrath) our four-hole hitter with a dislocated shoulder. I think that’s what the diagnosis is right now. We’re still day-to-day. We don’t want to do anything to hurt his chances to play against UCLA (in two weeks).”

Trek Stemp also missed his start last Sunday because of the flu, Lees said. Stemp has begun the season on fire with an 11-game hitting streak prior to missing the start against Utah Valley. He leads the team with 20 hits and 11 runs scored.

The process of shuffling players in and out of the Cougar lineup provides an opportunity for youth to get their time in the sun.

“Mason (Cerrillo) might be a surprise to people who haven’t seen any games yet, but he’s not a surprise to us,” said Lees. “He’s a good hitter. He’s probably got the cleanest swing on our team and plays with an unbelievable passion.”

The one thing that’s limiting the freshman’s playing time -- faster outfielders on the roster. There’s a possibility Cerrillo will get a look at first base. His competitiveness is contagious, said the WSU skipper..

“…We need to find a way to get him on the field other than a pinch hitter or DH because he’s a good player,” said Lees.

The little lapses here and there have cost WSU dearly in the early part of the season.

“A walk or an error, it’s kind of been our nemesis to give up three or four runs an inning instead of finding a way to stop the bleeding… Every time we get a chance to play, we get a chance to get better,” said Lees.

The Cougs take on Northeastern (6-5) out of Boston this weekend in four-game series beginning on Thursday.

“They’ve played good teams this whole year,” said Lees. “The pitching that they beat in Oklahoma is high level pitching. You know when they’ve faced good foes like (the Sooners who are one of the best teams in the nation), it’s good for us. We want to take advantage of our homestand, being in our home yard with the fans that are here.

“If we can get a couple of things going in the right direction and get some consistency, we can be a great team.”

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