BASEBALL: Marbut has multiple sparkplugs

TRADITIONALLY, LOCKER ROOMS are overflowing with clichés. Perhaps none is more ingratiating to members of the media than that timeless classic, "It was a total team win." Thankfully, no one seems to recall anyone on the Washington State baseball team serving that one up this season. If, however, it does sneak out, even the media would have to give the Cougars a pass.

Washington State's late-season surge to presumably clinch a second straight NCAA tournament berth has been sparked by an usually large number of players. On any given day, a new hero takes center stage.

Chad Arnold (5-2, 3.40 ERA) has been a rock all season as the No. 1 starting pitcher. The Cougars weren't going anywhere, however, until junior James Wise (3-1, 4.24) and sophomore Adam Conley (5-2, 2.57) joined the starting rotation and turned in lights-out performances.

Conley, of course, was one of the nation's top closers most of the season. He still helps out in the bullpen on occasion, but the emergence of relievers Connor Lambert (4-1, 3.28) and Paris Shewey (7-2, 2.75) has helped free up Conley to start.

DEFENSIVELY, THE COUGARS rank among the national leaders with 69 double plays. Catcher Jay Ponciano has thrown out almost half of would-be base stealers. WSU's outfield defense is borderline superb when blurry-fast Kyle Johnson mans center field and Garry Kuykendall -- a fleet-footed fellow in his own right -- shifts to left.

Senior designated hitter and pinch-hitting wizard Matt Fanelli, a .247 career hitter coming into the season, had three-hit games in four of the past eight contests to hike his season average to .311. Fanelli is first on the Cougars with 40 RBIs.

Another senior, first baseman Michael Weber, drove in 12 runs in a recent three-game stretch and is batting .318 after a .220 effort last year.

Freshman left fielder Brett Jacobs leads the team with a .364 batting average, but he's fighting for playing time of late. Right fielder Derek Jones drove in 11 runs in a three-game sweep of USC last weekend and is batting .308 after hitting .223 with a boatload of strikeouts last year.

Ponciano, a junior who came out of nowhere last season after missing two years with a career-threatening foot injury, has overcome a dreadful start at the plate to produce six multi-hit games in his last 11 games and lift his average to .244.

WE HAVEN'T EVEN mentioned steady contributors like three junior starters: third baseman Matt Argyropolous (.284), shortstop Shea Vucinich (.277) and Kuykendall (also .277). Kuykendall leads the team with 12 stolen bases, and Argyropolous has 39 RBIs -- the same as Jones and Weber, and just one less than Fanelli.

Last and anything but least, junior second baseman Cody Bartlett -- who started the season with a .223 career average -- is batting .333 with five home runs, 16 doubles (tied for the team lead with Weber) and 29 RBIs. The Cougars are 11-2 and averaging 8.5 runs per game since the scrappy Bartlett moved into the No. 2 slot in the batting order May 2 after spending most of his first two seasons batting eighth or ninth.

"Cody batting in the 2 hole has really changed the offense," coach Donnie Marbut said. "He's really been a catalyst, maybe the MVP of the team."

Conley might draw a few votes for that award. The hard-throwing lefty has made a seamless transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation this month.

"He's just so competitive," Marbut said. "He wants the ball. I think the biggest thing was, we've been lacking that third starter. He's one of those kids, he feels like, ‘The team needs me.' He puts the team before himself."

Marbut said Conley expands his pitching skills when he starts, and Conley agrees.

"When he's closing," Marbut points out, "he's usually just coming in and pounding that fastball. You need to figure out how to get hitters out after they've gone through the lineup a couple times," Conley said. "That's a lot different than closing, when you can just come in and throw strikes."

THE COUGS, IN THIRD place in the Pac-10, (33-18, 14-10 Pac-10), wrap up the regular season with games Friday, Saturday and Sunday at second-place UCLA (41-12, 16-8).

WSU is ranked 20th, while the Bruins are No. 7. UCLA has one of the nation's premier pitching staffs. "It's going to be a heck of a challenge for us," Marbut said. "I want to go down and play a good club in a hostile environment and get us ready for the post-season."

The UCLA games won't be televised, but there's the usual live radio in the Palouse and pay audio at The Bruins are 19-12 since a 22-0 start. UCLA had won seven straight and 11 of 12 before losing 5-2 Tuesday at No. 8 Cal State-Fullerton. The Bruins play at Jackie Robinson Stadium, named for the ex-UCLA star who broke the modern-day color barrier in major league baseball.

JONES, WSU'S ONLY real big-time power threat, has 11 home runs in 42 games and shows no ill effects from the broken hand that sidelined him for nine games. "That kid's one of the hardest-working hitters I've ever seen," Bartlett said. "It's like he was never hurt, and we don't expect anything less. Derek's a tough kid. I'd say he's the spark of the offense."

MARBUT SAID sophomore pitcher David Stilley, originally penciled in as the No. 2 starter, is done for the year. Stilley is undergoing shoulder tests after experiencing arm trouble off and on since the winter.

Seth Harvey hasn't had the senior year he had hoped for (2-1, 5.92), but he picked up his second save in Wednesday's home finale, a 3-2 win over Portland. With 74 career pitching appearances, Harvey is one behind Tom Pellerin (1983-86) for second in WSU history. Steve Kost (2005-08) is tops with 89.

FANS ARE invited to join the Cougars at the Palouse Creek Brewery in Pullman for the NCAA tournament selection show on ESPN at 9:30 a.m. Monday.

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