WSU BASEBALL: How young is young?

THE LABEL “young team” is overused when referring to the college game. But looking at the Washington State roster reveals why that label is properly applied to the Cougar baseball team. Of the 29 student-athletes listed, 23 are either freshmen or sophomores. Patrick McGrath is the only senior suiting up for Lees this season.

Washington State Cougar baseball (13-23, 6-12 Pac-12) is in Eugene this weekend to take on Oregon (17-16, 7-8 Pac-12). WSU Coach Marty Lees addressed a variety of topics in his weekly presser.

Two of the more notable contributors for Lees, both members of the youthful group, can be found working out of the Cougar bullpen. Sophomores Ryan Walker (5-2, 2.34 ERA) and Scotty Sunitsch (3-0, 4.55 ERA, pictured above) have proven to be “Go To” guys.

“Between Scotty Sunitsch and Ryan Walker, those two are going to be pitching when it’s winning time,” says Lees. “We try to make sure that when we have a chance to win we put one of those two in there to secure what we need. Walker has been solid all year.”

With a wicked sidearm delivery and at 6-2 and 190, the bearded righthander from Arlington is an imposing figure on the mound. Coming out of the fall, Walker looked every bit the part of a closer.  Southpaw Sunitsch out of Federal Way uses even greater bulk to intimidate the opposition.

Lees has enjoyed the “comfort” of having these two pitchers not only shut down opponents when given the ball, both have usually gone two, three, four or more innings of work to secure a WSU win.

“You’ve got two guys you can count on,” say Lees of this duo. “Sunitsch has been kind of a surprise to us. He’s been out of the pen for a couple of years now. I think there was a turning point in the year where he went three innings and we saw a pitch count being built up. Then all of the sudden because he’s touching the ball more and getting reps that are live on the mound he saw his pitches develop a little bit.

“They could be starters for us this year. If we could get to a Sunday game where neither of them have thrown, one of them would start.”

Coaches and fans know solid pitching is the foundation for a winning baseball program. Taking into account that Walker and Sunitsch are sophomores, they will be prominent players over the remaining games this season and beyond.

“Looking into the future you could safely say that we know we have at least two starters in our program as we look forward.”

Turning to the Washington State offense, one guy who has been on a tear at the plate the last few weeks is sophomore Shane Matheny. All Matheny has done lately is get 10 hits in his last 15 official at-bats over the past six games (.667). After struggling much of this season at the plate, Matheny has crossed the Mendoza Line and appears to be on his way to realizing his potential.

“Shane has done an incredible job of staying the course,” says Lees. “He could have easily jumped ship. Put the blame on somebody or not take the extra reps.”

Matheny was the only player who started all 56 games for the Cougs last season and finished with a .207 batting average. It’s not unheard of for sophomores to suffer setbacks in their second full year of Pac-12 competition. Matheny was in a hitting slump which extended through the first half of 2016. Lees has guided him through the process necessary to be successful in every phase of the game. That patience and perseverance is beginning to pay dividends.

“Shane works really hard. His attention to detail and the work he has given to this team is second to none. When you get to go out and play every day you get to play through those slumps.”

Hearing Lees talk about Matheny begged the question of whether or he is a coachable young man.

“Absolutely,” said Lees. “You can have an honest, useful conversation with him. He doesn’t take it personal. He’s open and he wants to do well. There was frustration and he’s battled through it. Kids who do that typically reap rewards. I feel like he’s beginning to reap those rewards.”

Since Lees grew up in the Lakeview, Oregon area, the trip to Eugene will be a great opportunity for family and friends to attend games beginning Friday night. A couple of weeks ago, WSU took two of three games from then No. 10 Oregon State where Lees was an assistant for 11-years. He’d like nothing better than to make a return trip to his former home state and sweep the series.

WSU will face an Oregon team loaded with potential but lacking consistency. The Ducks finished last year in the middle of the Pac-12 standings. Expected to improve on that record, Oregon has stumbled and fallen near the bottom this season. They are expected to start Matt Krook, Cole Irwin and David Peterson against the Cougs -- all lefties. Krook and Irwin have more strikeouts than innings pitched.

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