Baseball steps up to home plate for first time in 2014

Chris Shaw | Evergreen baseball reporter

Following a weekend filled with highs and lows, the Washington State Cougar baseball team will look to level itself into a rhythm of consistency as it begins its first home series of the year on Friday. 

The Western Carolina Catamounts (2-2) journey to Bailey-Brayton Field for a four-game series against the Cougars (1-3). Both teams began their season in rough fashion, perhaps due to the fact that they played against the top two teams in the nation entering the year. However, WCU is coming off an 8-0 win against Winthrop in which seven pitchers combined on a shutout. 

In the first four games of the season, the Cougars’ starting pitching staff struggled to stay on the mound late into games. Of the four starters, junior Tanner Chleborad lasted the longest, going five innings in an extra-inning victory against Cal State Fullerton. The other three starters averaged pitching 2 1/3 innings.

Pitching Coach Gregg Swenson said the pitching staff was missing its spots frequently and the pitchers threw in a way that was uncharacteristic of how they have performed in practice. 

“I would say the biggest thing is being able to execute our pitches,” Swenson said. “We always talk about a concept of pounding the strings. The strings are a line that we set up in our bullpens, which is knee height or below.”

The bullpen was plagued with the task of throwing most of the innings and absorbed most of the runs scored by their opponents. Cougar relievers have combined to give up 24 runs so far this season. 

Despite that, junior Sean Hartnett and freshman Ian Hamilton have stabilized the bullpen by not allowing a run in 8 2/3 innings of combined work. 

 “(Hamilton) sees the teams he’s playing as just another team,” Swenson said. “I don’t think he puts anybody on a pedestal.”

Meanwhile, the Cougar offense is anchored by redshirt sophomore Nick Tanielu, who has a .438 batting average, seven hits, and a .563 slugging percentage. Sophomore leadoff hitter Trek Stemp has also experienced early success by batting .316 with the second-most hits and RBIs on the team. 

Tanielu said the Cougars need to keep hitting consistently in order to beat Western Carolina this weekend. 

“The keys to winning are just coming out, playing our game, attacking the fastball, and trying to get our bats moving early,” Tanielu said. 

Stemp agreed with Tanielu and said the team as a whole could attack more on the offensive side of the ball. Stemp said the Cougars did not swing at a lot of fastballs during the weekend and watched a lot of pitches. 

 “The key for us is that we need to score a lot of runs, so we need to be more aggressive,” Stemp said. 

The WCU pitching staff, charged with the task of shutting down the Cougar offense, is led by junior right-hander Jeremy Null, who threw eight shutout innings in his first outing of the season, striking out 12, walking one, and allowing only three hits. 

If the Catamounts have a lead late in the game, the Cougars will likely face freshman Bryan Sammons, who has a 2.08 ERA in 4 1/3 innings of relief. He has surrendered only two hits in his time on the mound this season. 

On the offense, the Catamounts will challenge the Cougar pitching staff with a lineup averaging 4.5 walks and more than 10 strikeouts per game. Senior catcher and outfielder Luke Gregg and senior infielder Aaron Attaway are the team’s most consistent and productive hitters with batting averages greater than .370 and on-base percentages well above .400. 

WCU junior infielder Bradley Strong also has spent plenty of time on the basepaths, and has begun to wreak havoc on opposing pitchers already. He is two of two in stolen base attempts so far this season and could use his speed to threaten the Cougar pitchers. 

These two teams met last season for three games in North Carolina, and the Cougars lost two out of three and were outscored 24-19. Tanielu said the team usually uses the cold atmosphere of playing in Pullman as an advantage, but playing in Carolina showed that the Catamounts are used to playing in the cold too. 

“In the beginning of the season, not many fans come out because it’s so cold, but we always have those die-hard Coug fans that come out in rain, snow, sleet, hail, all of it,” Tanielu said. 

The first pitch for Friday’s matchup is scheduled for 6 p.m. Redshirt junior Scott Simon, Chleborad, and senior Jason Monda are scheduled to pitch in the first three games, in that order. WCU will counter with Null on Friday, senior Jordan Smith on Saturday, and redshirt senior T.J. Fussell on Sunday.