WSU pitcher has come long way in every Way

PULLMAN -- Washington State's best pitcher has developed into one of college baseball's best pitchers, but only after dealing with all kinds of obstacles. For starters, Matt Way was born and raised in Sitka, Alaska, a tiny fishing town with enough rain to make Seattle seem like a cactus farm.

Secondly, Matt Way battled chronic inconsistency his first three seasons at WSU, resulting in a bloated earned run average (5.04) that looked more like a good mortgage rate.

Last but not least, Way had to overcome the biggest obstacle of all -- himself.

"He was immature and arrogant," Cougar coach Donnie Marbut said.

"What he had is a really high opinion of his abilities," pitching coach Gregg Swenson said. Senior catcher Greg Lagreid, asked if he ever thought Way would turn into an elite pitcher, just shook his head.

"No chance," he said.

The object of so much scorn currently stands among the Pac-10 leaders with six wins (against four losses), a 2.04 earned run average, 86 strikeouts and 79 1/3 innings pitched. In the latest NCAA Division I statistics, Way ranks 13th in ERA and 16th in strikeouts.

"I've never seen a guy make as many changes as he has in a positive way," Marbut said. "I'm as proud of him as anybody I've coached."

"The growth he's made as a kid and a player and everything else is phenomenal," Swenson added.

"He has," Lagreid summed up, "turned into something special."

Way admits he was "real stubborn" and "real confused for a while" when he arrived at WSU.

"I was kind of scared," Way recalled. "I was my parents' first kid to go to college. They didn't really send me here prepared.

"I came here with like two bags, a blanket and a pillow. I was not prepared for anything about this.

"I didn't even know where my dorm was at first. I was completely lost."

Way certainly looked lost on the mound. It didn't help matters when he would routinely listen to coaches' suggestions, nod his head --"I think I was always polite" -- then do the exact opposite if he didn't see results right away.

"I put off the attitude of the cocky, arrogant guy: ‘I'll hit you if I want to,' that kind of mentality," Way said. "Which is good to have on the mound for some people, but I needed to learn how to control it."

Late last season, Swenson said, "something clicked," helped by the fact that Way began working inside more with his fastball. Way moved into the starting rotation after pitching well in relief much of the season and finished the year 4-4 with a team-leading 4.01 ERA.

"It helped a lot to develop a weekly routine (as a starter)," Way said.

After the season, Way was drafted in the 36th round by the Giants, and he played in the prestigious Cape Cod League last summer. The left-hander considered turning pro, but the money wasn't right, and he knew he needed to add a pitch if he was going to have a chance to fulfill his dream of being a starting pitcher in the major leagues.

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Way now mixes in an improving slider with a high 80s, low-90s fastball and a changeup that dances more provocatively than a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. Just as importantly, he continues to work hard, a quality everyone agrees Way has always possessed.

"If you watch him work throughout the week, it's incredible," Swenson said.

"He's turned into one of the most driven kids I know," Marbut said.

THE COUGARS STUMBLED upon Way late in the summer following his senior year of high school when Way was playing for an Edmonds-based Connie Mack League team for the second straight year.

Way initiated contact with that club because Sitka has no summer teams for players older than 16. Flying to Seattle wasn't considered a big deal. Nestled on Baranof Island between the Tongass National Forrest and the Inside Passage, transportation in and out of Sitka is limited to two modes: air or water. Way's high school teams (he was also a standout swimmer and wrestler at Sitka High) had to fly to all their events.

That's just one way baseball in Alaska is just a tad different than in the Lower 48. Way alternately smiles and grimaces as he tells stories of glacier silt fields ("Because it drains so well"), coaches adorned in Gore-Tex suits, rock-filled infields and rain-soaked outfields.

"There's no rainouts -- ever," Way said. "The only way a game is ever called is because of darkness if there are no lights on the field."

Way jokes that he's "gotten a little soft" since leaving the rugged ways of Alaska behind. Those who have watched his development at Washington State beg to differ.

"He always competes out there," Lagreid said. "No matter what's going on, no matter what the score is, he's giving all he's got at all times."


• The Cougars, bidding for their first NCAA regionals appearance in 19 years, take on last-place Oregon this weekend at Bailey-Brayton Field. Game times are 7 p.m. Saturday (commencement is held earlier in the day), 2 p.m. Sunday and noon Monday.

• Oregon (14-31, 4-14), playing Pac-10 baseball for the first time since 1980, has lost nine of its last 10 games. … Way is expected to take the mound Saturday opposite talented Oregon junior right-hander Erik Stavert (5-3, 2.48). … The Ducks are coached by George Horton, who guided Cal State Fullerton to the 2004 national title. Ex-Titans who played for Horton and went on to the big leagues include Mark Kotsay, Aaron Rowand, Phil Nevin, Chad Cordero and Kurt Suzuki.

• Two straight losses over the weekend to Stanford dropped the Cougars (22-20, 11-7 Pac-10) into a third-place tie with Oregon State. The Cougars visit the Beavers (ranked 25th by Baseball America) next weekend, and then wrap up the regular season at home May 22-24 against fifth-place Washington.

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