Cougar baseball ready to turn over a new leaf

Opening day is just four days away for a WSU baseball team looking to prove pundits wrong this spring.

Picked to finish last in the Pac-12 preseason media poll, the Cougars open their season on Friday at Sacramento State.

The Cougars finished with an overall record of 19-35 in 2016, good enough for a last-place finish in a conference that sent four of its 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament.

Improvements on both sides of the ball are necessary for the Cougars to be competitive in the Pac-12. In 2016, WSU finished in the cellar in both runs scored and runs allowed.

Offensively, second basemen Trek Stemp led the team with a .393 on-base percentage. Outside of Stemp, who was drafted in the 29th round of the MLB Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2016, WSU struggled to get runners on base and generate runs.

In addition to finishing last in runs scored, the Cougars were the conference’s bottom-feeder in about every major offensive category last season, including walks, strikeouts, extra base hits, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

On defense, the team endured similar struggles, posting the worst marks in the Pac-12 in runs allowed, earned run average, walks allowed and fielding percentage.

With four Pac-12 teams ranked in Baseball America’s preseason top-25 poll (Oregon State, Washington, Arizona and Stanford) and two more squads projected to qualify for the postseason (Arizona State and UCLA), the Cougars will again be up against some of the nation’s best competition this spring.

WSU also lost pitchers Ian Hamilton and Layne Bruner and Stemp to the 2016 MLB Draft, depleting an already young team of its veteran presence.

But second-year Head Coach Marty Lees has experience in winning consistently in the Pac-12. Lees was an assistant coach at Oregon State from 2002-2012 and helped the Beavers win the College World Series in 2005 and 2006 and make it to Omaha in 2004.

In 2017, Lees has 17 returning players, though senior pitcher Trenton Dupre is the Cougars’ only senior on the roster. Additionally, the roster consists of another 18 players: 10 freshmen and eight junior college transfers—who were not members of the 2016 squad.

The strong class of freshmen and junior college players, ranked as the 28th-best incoming recruiting class by d1baseball.com, gives WSU a new contingent of talent and a chance to turn over a new leaf in the formative years of Lees’ tenure.

A key returner for WSU is junior third baseman Shane Matheny. In his sophomore year and second season as a starter, Matheny struggled at times, hitting just .226. However, Matheny led the team with 26 runs batted in and walked 21 times in 159 at-bats.

Defensively, Matheny did not commit a single error during Pac-12 play. Now in his junior season, Matheny is one of the few returning players who can provide Lees with invaluable experience.

The Cougars’ new additions are expected to pick up the pieces from last season’s offensive woes.

Freshman catcher Cal Waterman from Bend, Oregon, supplies plenty of power from the right side of the plate with his 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound frame. Waterman hit .574 with 17 doubles and eight home runs in his senior year of high school. In 2016, he was named the Oregon 5A State Player of the year and was also selected for the All-USA Oregon State team.

Western Oklahoma State College transfer and junior outfielder Blake Clanton also gives Lees plenty to be excited about with his mix of speed, power and defense. In his sophomore year at WOSC, Clanton hit .373 with ten doubles and 19 home runs and a .781 slugging percentage in 64 games to go with 17 stolen bases.

Revamped with an overturned roster, the Cougars make their season debut at 4 p.m. on March 3 at Bailey-Brayton Field against Stephen F. Austin.