WSU, Lees face test at No. 20 UCLA as Cougar baseball opens Pac-12 play this weekend

WASHINGTON STATE baseball (7-9) begins its Pac-12 schedule this weekend at UCLA. Though its record is a modest 8-7, UCLA is ranked No. 20 in the land. You don't have to sell WSU skipper Marty Lees on the Bruins.

“They are one of the best teams in the Pac-12 and one of the best teams in the country,” said Lees during his press conference Wednesday. “They’ve been playing well. They have been functional on offense and I know (Coach) John Savage is going to have them ready for Pac-12 play.”

The Bruins have just four seniors on their roster but have 10. Every student-athlete on the Bruin roster hails from the Golden State, reflecting California being a hotbed for baseball prospects and talent.

From this point forward the importance of playing winning baseball is crucial for the Cougs to accomplish their postseason goals, including Omaha and the College World Series.

Lees said he’s confident with a pitching rotation featuring junior Ian Hamilton (0-4, 3.04 era), freshman Ryan Ward (1-0, 4.20 era) and freshman Parker McFadden (2-0, 3.86 era). Hamilton has made a good transition from being a closer for WSU last season to the Friday Night guy this year.

“Ian has continued to come out and give us his best stuff,” said Lees. “He trains well. He practices hard. He gives attention to detail. He prepares himself to beat the best team in the country every week. (I) feel good about where he’s going with his progress by being able to land a fastball on both sides of the plate and being able to throw a breaking ball and change when he wants.”

Both Ward and McFadden are coming off their best outings wearing crimson and gray.

“They both gave up a run early then came back and competed well. That’s what we’re looking for. They both keep getting better every week.” Neither student-athlete really had a chance to practice last fall because of injuries. “They are very poised kids. They expect that every time they go to the mound they’re going to win.”

If the situation arises, another freshman pitcher Lees expects big things from is 6-4 lefty Ryley Widell (1-0, 12.27 era) out of Haiku, Hawaii.

“He’s somebody we really believe is going to be similar to Ward and McFadden. He just needs more touches. He showed on Sunday that (ability) is there.”

Lees is happy with his freshman starters.

“They’re not only the future, they’re now.”

The Cougs are off to a good start this season offensively, ranking near the top of every category in the Pac-12. This being Lees’ first year at Washington State, he wasn’t sure what level of performance to expect from his ball club. Heading into conference play the Cougar head man is confident saying, “...the parts are there.”

Senior Patrick McGrath was off to a great start at the plate (.395, 12 RBI)  before being injured and having to sit out the last couple of weeks. McGrath wasn’t been able to turn many heads posting stats easily overlooked prior to Lees arriving on campus. Whether he’s a late bloomer or realizing this is his senior campaign, McGrath has competed effectively at the plate. The Cougar skipper is hoping he’ll be ready to play against UCLA. Redshirt junior Trek Stemp (.415) finds a way to get aboard nearly half the time with an impressive on-base average of .466.

“Trek didn’t play last year, but he’s a really good leadoff hitter. He gets on base a lot,” said Lees.

Because of his excellent speed, Lees has been working with sophomore outfielder Derek Chapman (.353 AVG) to bunt more often. Noting that attempting only a handful of bunts last year, Chapman hadn’t exploited his natural talent.

“He has the ability to hit and use those legs and the ability to bunt and help us create an offense,” said Lees.

“(Redshirt sophomore JC transfer) Dugan Shirer (.438) has been a very good surprise. He didn’t start out the year great. The more pitches he’s faced (shows) he starting to bring something to the table that’s good.”

When it comes to a key component to winning Pac-12 games, team confidence was buoyed last weekend vs. Northeastern, said Lees.

“Up to this point, this is the best baseball we’ve played. Connecting it all, we actually made some good defensive plays (last) weekend, too. We’re playing as good as we can going into a Pac-12 schedule playing against UCLA.”

The first pitch of the weekend series is scheduled for 4pm Friday night and will be broadcast on Pac-12 Networks. You can listen to the radio broadcast linked from the WSU website for the Saturday matinee beginning at 2pm. The series will wrap up Sunday at noon and will be televised on Pac-12 Networks.

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