PULLMAN -- Four years ago, the Washington State baseball team finished 1-23 in the Pac-10, and coach Donnie Marbut had the gall to tell incoming recruits he fully intended to lead them to the NCAA playoffs before they graduated. Jared Prince, an optimistic sort by nature, believed Marbut.
Four years later, after a rollercoaster career that has seen Jared Prince
and his team experience all sorts of highs and lows, no one takes more pride in WSU's pending trip to regionals than Prince.
"I just feel a lot of joy in that I committed here and these other seniors committed to a Cougar team that won one Pac-10 game, and now we're going to a regional," Prince said after the Cougars crushed Washington 7-1 Saturday afternoon at sun-kissed Bailey-Brayton Field.
Marbut calls Prince "Mr. Cougar" and "the epitome" of what Cougar baseball is all about.
"It's his team," Marbut says.
Prince, whose name is plastered all over WSU's career top-10 lists, has put together his best season since his storybook freshman debut in 2006. The personable right fielder from Poulsbo has hit safely in 13 of the past 14 games to lift his batting average to .348, and he ignited Saturday's rout with a homer to left-center to lead off the second inning.
"To come out my senior year and finish up the way I really wanted to has been really rewarding," Prince said. "And the team having all the success we've always envisioned -- again, it's been very rewarding."
For those unfamiliar with Prince's background, the story bears repeating. He was a three-sport standout at North Kitsap High School who was thinking about playing quarterback and mixing in some baseball at Washington before the Cougars beat the Huskies to the punch with a scholarship offer.
Prince drew comparisons to John Olerud, a future major league all-star who was WSU's hitting and pitching sensation of the late 1980s, when he led the Pac-10 with a .401 batting average and posted a 6-2 record on the mound as a freshman.
Prince belted nine home runs, drove in 58 runs, stole 10 bases and played error-free ball in the field that freshman season.
Except for the errorless part -- Prince's only error in college came during his sophomore year -- Prince has never come close to duplicating any of his freshman numbers. Part of the reason has been WSU's beefed-up scheduling, but Prince struggled with injuries for two years after hurting his right (throwing) shoulder at tryouts for the U.S. national team the summer following his first college season.
"Obviously, you wonder, ‘What if I didn't blow out my shoulder in the middle of my career?'" Prince said. "But I wouldn't trade it, because it taught me perseverance -- just having to overcome big obstacles."
Prince has dealt with lesser injuries this year, and an elbow problem led to Marbut's decision to drop Prince from the starting pitching rotation and, ultimately, to quit using Prince on the mound altogether. Coincidentally or not, Prince's bat has been on fire since he gave up pitching, and he leads the Cougars with a .407 batting average in conference play.
Today is Senior Day at WSU, the final home game for the first NCAA post-season baseball team in 19 years. If Prince lets the applause wash over him for just an extra moment or two when he's introduced, allow him that guilty pleasure.
Chad Arnold, a highly acclaimed recruit who struggled as a freshman last season after sitting out a year due to elbow surgery, improved to 7-3 with a dominant performance against the Huskies on Saturday. Arnold struck out a career-high eight in 5 2/3 innings and held Washington scoreless on two hits. "The whole confidence factor has changed for me," said the 21-year-old Arnold, who is draft eligible and said he would listen to a pro offer.
Arnold and freshman Adam Conley combined on a two-hit shutout against the Dawgs until Troy Scott -- who had all three Washington hits -- sent a home run soaring over the 400-foot sign in center field with two out in the ninth. That was the only hit Conley allowed in 3 1/3 innings, and he struck out six. "He's one of the fiercest competitors we have on this team," Prince said. "I love it when he pitches."
Brilliant sunshine helped draw an unusually large crowd (1,772) for the second straight day. Carolina Panthers defensive end Tyler Brayton threw out the ceremonial first pitch. As a youngster, Brayton was a Cougar batboy when WSU's coach was Tyler's grandfather, the legendary Bobo Brayton.
Correction: WSU relief ace Jeremy Johnson was not charged with a blown save Friday.
One day after Washington hitters set a school record for most strikeouts in a season, WSU pitchers set a school record for most strikeouts in a season. The Huskies have whiffed 29 times in back-to-back losses to the Cougars. Cleanup hitter Kyle Conley, tied for the school record of 42 career home runs, has gone 0-for-9 with six strikeouts.
WSU's David Stilley (3-2, 4.35) is scheduled to pitch today at noon against Washington's Andrew Kittredge (4-4, 3.86). Both are freshmen. The status of WSU second baseman Cody Bartlett is uncertain after he injured a knee when tagging Scott on a foiled stolen-base attempt in the second inning.
WSU catcher Jay Ponciano, whose career-threatening foot problems delayed his college debut two years until this season, homered and totaled a career-high three hits on Saturday. Ponciano was robbed of a fourth hit in his last at-bat when third baseman Julien Pollard made one of his two ESPN-worthy diving plays in the game. A third highlight-reel play was turned in by WSU freshman left fielder Derek Jones, who crashed into the wall a millisecond after running forever to snare a drive by Pierce Rankin in the sixth inning.