Skipper Marty Lees' big disappointment: WSU's pitching

WASHINGTON STATE PITCHING this season has been inconsistent. And playing winning baseball requires establishing a solid starting rotation, something that has eluded the Cougs. “It starts on the mound, throwing strikes and making your pitches,” Cougar skipper Marty Lees said this week. “That’s probably one of the things I’m disappointed in from the get-go. We walk way too many kids.”

Washington State (10-18, 3-8 Pac-12) has gotten off to a rough start this season under first year coach Lees. With No. 7 Oregon State (22-7, 5-4 Pac-12) coming to Pullman for a three-game series that starts Thursday, Lees said the search for a starting rotation continues. Indeed, when asked who he’s penciled in for the OSU series, Lees couldn’t say who his three starters would be.

“I know that Ian (Hamilton) is going to start Thursday or Friday. If I was to guess right now it would be TBA on Thursday, Hamilton (1-7, 4.18 ERA) on Friday and TBA on Saturday. We’re looking for someone to throw strikes and compete,” said Lees.

Lees on Tuesday also wasn’t prepared to name his starters because he was bumped from his flight out of LAX following last weekend’s series with Arizona -- the WSU manager returned to Pullman a day later than the rest of the team and had yet to sit down with his coaches to discuss the pitching situation.

Another area of concern for Lees after playing roughly half of the 2016 schedule -- what happens after the ball is put in play.

“We need to play better defense,” said Lees.  “We look at fielding percentage in the league and we’re sitting in last.”

There is usually a ripple effect from poor defense. Pitchers will begin to attempt striking out everyone they face when they lack confidence in their teammate’s ability to field balls. Lees acknowledged the connection quite frankly.

“In ERA, we’re sitting last,” he said.

There have been glimpses of offensive potential by this ball club, but they've remained glimpses.

“We don’t find ways to get some runs one night, then the next day we’re like the ‘27 Yankees. We can do whatever we want whenever we want. We’ve got to get more consistent,” said Lees.

The Cougs, however, have been striking out too often at the plate. Players are given a game plan by the coaches on how to attack opposing pitching but there hasn’t been a great connection between hearing what to expect, and execution. Cougar batters struck out seven times in seven plus innings against the Sunday starter for Arizona last weekend.

“That’s not competing…that’s giving in,” said Lees.

In the search for players who will deliver consistent play, Lees pulled the redshirt off in-state freshman Jacob Thurber a couple weeks ago. Thurber enjoyed a stellar prep career at Kennedy High in Des Moines. He was an offensive machine posting a .493 on-base percentage and monster .645 slugging percentage. Those numbers caught plenty of attention including that of the Seattle Mariners who named him to their fall scout team.

The plan for Thurber, to acclimate to college and develop as a player his redshirt season, was changed because of his smooth swing from the left side of the plate and the needs of his team.

“I looked at what we were doing offensively, specifically versus right handed pitching,” said Lees. “We talked about it with him. We wouldn’t do anything without him believing in what we’re trying to do for him was the best for him and our team. We made that decision. We’re going to stick with it and keep running him out there because we believe he’s got that chance to hit.”

Thurber collected two hits in his first six appearances. Since then he has failed to reach base safely.

“He came out there the first weekend and his intent was exactly what we need there (as a DH). He was kind of a boost. I didn’t see that same energy and intent this last weekend, but I looked at what our current outfielders are doing and our current hitters and wanted to give him an option,” said Lees.

The other notable change Lees has made in his lineup in search of a winning combination has been inserting Ty Johnson behind the plate. Johnson has terrorized opposing pitchers in hitting a team best .450 in Pac-12 play.  During fall workouts, Johnson’s arm was tender so he didn’t throw great along with the fact didn’t block low pitches great.

“We moved him to the mound, then when J.J. Hancock got hurt he was moved back behind the plate as the second catcher," said Lees. "He needs to get better and is working on it. Right now he’s proven he can at least hold (catching) down. He needs to improve behind the plate. He gives very good energy and he’s been hitting. Right now, he’s our best hitter.”

But the defensive reality of the catcher position has plagued the Cougs all season. Lees made that clear in saying, “we’re giving up way too many wild pitches and passed balls. Between the two, we’ve given up too many runs.”

The Washington State head coach was brief and concise when talking about the future for Cougar baseball.

“We can talk about winning a championship, but right now we just need to get better every day.”

Cougfan Top Stories