Baseball preview with Donnie Marbut

ON THE DIAMOND, the Cougars begin their quest toward a second straight postseason berth with a two-game series starting Saturday against Seattle University at Bailey-Brayton Field. Can WSU pick up where they left off last season, or was 2009 a cruel anomaly for Cougar fans? Skipper Donnie Marbut discussed that and more with CF.C this past week.

Marbut was in a similar position as Paul Wulff when he inherited his program from Tim Mooney in 2005. The Cougars finished 1-23 in Pac-10 play during his first year. It was not until 2009, Marbut's fifth season, that WSU reached the postseason.

WSU finished second in the conference last year with a 19-8 record (32-25 overall). They played in three playoff games, winning one, but were eliminated in the NCAA Division I Championship-Norman Regional with 7-2 loss to Oklahoma.

Marbut said last year's performance was a direct result of patience with his rebuilding process.

"Those seniors were our first recruiting class," he said. "They knew exactly how we wanted things, and those kids deserve all the credit."

MARBUT SAID RETURNING to the playoffs is a reasonable goal for this season, but added that matching last year's conference record might be difficult.

"Every team is as good, or better, than last year," he said. "I'm not saying it can't happen, but we have a lot of work to do."

It begins on the mound, where the Cougars must replace No. 1 starter Matt Way, who was a fifth-round selection by the Philadelphia Phillies in June after posting a 8-4 record and a 2.43 ERA last season.

Marbut said last year's No. 2 starter, right-hander Chad Arnold (8-3, 4.39), and No. 3 lefty David Stilley (3-3, 4.63), both will move up a spot in the rotation. Arnold, a junior, and Stilley, a sophomore, both redshirted during their first year on campus after undergoing "Tommy John" surgery.

Arnold, who had 76 strikeouts in 80 innings in 2009, has increased his velocity from last season, said Marbut. Further, both Arnold and Stilley will benefit from their previous Pac-10 experience, Marbut noted, citing Way's improvement every season.

The third starter will be right-hander Travis Cook, a freshman from Cedarcrest High School in Duvall, but maybe not right away -- Howie Stalwick reports that Cook is out for several weeks with a collapsed lung.

Marbut was surprised Cook was not selected in last June's major-league draft.

"I thought he was the best arm in the state last year," he said. "He's had as good of a fall and winter as any arm we've ever had."

Cook features "a unique arm action," said Marbut, one that provides depth to many of his pitches, which include a fastball, slider and a developing changeup. Marbut expects Cook to develop into the team's top starter in the future.

THE BULLPEN ALSO suffered a significant loss when right-hander Jeremy Johnson elected to forego his senior season after being drafted in the 13th round by the Cleveland Indians. Johnson (6-2, 2.90) had 10 saves as WSU's closer last year.

Left-hander Adam Conley (1-1, 5.97) will inherit the closer's role. Marbut said the sophomore has shown significant development during the offseason.

"We think we replaced Jeremy Johnson with Adam Conley," Marbut said. "In my opinion, Adam Conley is as good as anyone we've ever had."

Marbut also likes the bullpen's depth behind Conley, particularly the right-handers. They include seniors Seth Harvey (0-1, 2.25), Connor Lambert (2-1, 4.50) and Michael Ratigan (1-1, 6.19). The left-handers include sophomores Spencer Jackson (0-2, 14.54) and Rusty Shellhorn (0-1, 12.15) and junior Paris Shewey (1-1, 3.95). Jackson and Shellhorn pitched in just 10 games combined in 2009.

Marbut is also a fan of his team's offensive depth this year. WSU hit .273 and had an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .775 last year. Neither statistic was overly impressive in a collegiate game that features metal bats.

WHILE ACKNOWLEDGING that pitchers such as Way and Johnson carried the team last year, Marbut sees more balance this season.

"I think we're a better offensive team this year than last year," he said. "I think we're faster and maybe a little more athletic."

Marbut hoped that second baseman Travis Coulter, who hit a team-high .333 in 2008 before missing nearly all of last season, would return for his redshirt senior year, but the NCAA ruled him academically ineligible.

Despite that setback, the Cougars return redshirt junior Cody Bartlett, (officially listed at SS but whose home may instead be 2B), who hit .239 last year, and junior third baseman Matt Argyropoulos (.270). While neither was a dominant offensive player in 2009, Marbut raved about their defense.

"When they're playing defense, they are probably the most solid dynamic duo in the conference, and maybe the country," he said.

Still, Shea Vucinich is expected to battle for the starting shortstop position and if he claims it, it will be his third straight season starting there.

Argyropoulos, Bartlett and senior second baseman Michael Weber (.220) comprise an infield that returns three of four players from last season. Junior first baseman Ryan Peterson (.238) was hampered much of season and eventually underwent back surgery.

"Ryan Peterson has had our best winter," Marbut said.

MARBUT SAID FRESHMAN first baseman Brady Steiger, a graduate of South Kitsap High School in Port Orchard, should see extensive playing time. Steiger also played third base and shortstop in high school.

WSU lost some of its catching depth from last season when Alex Burg, who hit .346 with seven home runs and 34 RBI, graduated. Burg missed part of the season with injury and was replaced by redshirt junior Jay Ponciano. When Burg, who was drafted in the 24th round by the San Francisco Giants, returned, he saw time at first base in addition to catcher. Another catcher, Greg Lagreid, also graduated.

"Ponciano saved our bacon last year," Marbut said.

Ponciano, who hit .352 with four home runs and 21 RBI in 2009, will be backed up by seldom-used sophomore Kyle Buchanan. Marbut said he likes to rest his catchers frequently.

THE COUGARS ALSO RETURN two of three starters in the outfield. Right fielder Jared Prince, who hit .343 with seven home runs and 38 RBI, graduated and was drafted in the 34th round by the Texas Rangers, but junior center fielder Garry Kuykendall and sophomore left fielder Derek Jones return.

Both are important components in WSU's offense. Kuykendall (.299) served as the lead-off hitter and had a team-high 11 stolen bases. Marbut called him "a catalyst" at the top of the lineup.

Jones (.223) was the team's No. 3 hitter in his first year. Despite the second-lowest batting average among WSU's regular starters, his .800 on-base-plus-slugging percentage was fourth best and he hit a team-high 12 home runs.

"He's made a tremendous amount of progression," said Marbut, adding that Jones' pitch recognition has improved significantly. "He's got a chance to be one of the great one's we've had."

Senior Matt Fanelli (.258) is the only projected outfielder starter who hits from the right side. Another righty, Richland High School graduate Brett Jacobs, is a freshman Marbut expects to see time in the outfield.

The infield starters are split among left- and right-handers, while Ponciano is a switch hitter.

"It's a nice mix," Marbut said. "Even though we lost a lot of guys, we have experience coming back at every position. I really like our offense."

Pac-10 play begins April 1 at Washington.

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