In 2011, Washington State was coming off back to back Regional Final appearances and entering the season with a preseason national ranking – but the resulting season went differently than they planned. The Cougars finished the campaign at a disappointing 28-28, with only a 10-17 in Pac-10 play. Things are looking different this year for the Cougars under eighth year head coach Donnie Marbut.
“Our focus this fall was getting back to competing with some of our high class players like Tommy Richards, Kyle Johnson, and Pat Clausen,” said Marbut. This refocusing of efforts for the Cougars will hopefully lead them back to the NCAA Tournament for the third time under Marbut.
The Cougars offense will be led by one of the best hitters in the Pac-12 and potentially in the country in Taylor Ard. The redshirt junior transferred to Washington State after one outstanding season at Mount Hood Community College in 2009 in which he won the league triple crown. Ard didn’t disappoint in his first season in 2011 with the Cougars, winning the Pac-10 home run and RBI titles. He was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 25th round, and decided to bolster his profile by playing in the Cape Cod League this past season. He ended up struggling with the Brewster Whitecaps, hitting .218 with four homers and 16 RBI. He was not able to come to terms with the Red Sox which brought him back to the Cougars for his senior season.
Marbut still thinks highly of Ard. “He is one of the best hitters in the country. Taylor might not get as much press playing in the Northwest, but I put up his skill set against anyone in the country.”
The other two key bats returning are Derek Jones and Jason Monda. Jones is a senior who is eight homers away from breaking the school record for homers in a career. He is coming off a junior season which saw him hit .275 with eight homers and 33 RBI in 54 games. He was selected in the 13th round by the Orioles, but returned to school for his final year.
Monda is a sophomore about to explode and make himself a name for the 2013 MLB Draft. He had a great summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League alongside Ard on the Brewster Whitecaps, and was named a CCBL All-Star after hitting .326 with a homer and 17 RBI. Marbut compared him to former Los Angeles Dodger Shawn Greene or current Colorado Rockies player Brad Hawpe.
One of the under the radar bats is a sophomore catcher Collin Slaybaugh, who started 34 games last season including the final 28. “He is the fastest catcher I have ever had the chance to coach in my career or even seen,” said Marbut. It should be interesting to see how Washington State uses both Monda and Slaybaugh’s speed during the upcoming season.
The leaders of the team both on and off the field are in Marbut’s mind second baseman Tommy Richards, third baseman Pat Clausen, and centerfielder Kyle Johnson. “Each of these three men have waited for their turn to start for the Cougars and exemplify what it means to be a Cougar,” says Marbut.
The real question with Washington State is who will be taking the ball on the weekends. Adam Conley departed after being drafted in the second round by the Florida Marlins. They have a solid staff shaping up with sophomore RHP JD Leckenby who will move into the rotation this year after serving as a setup man in 2011. Last year, he did not record a decision in 18 appearances but had a 2.28 ERA in 27.2 innings of work.
The second spot in the rotation to start the season will be filled by Bellvue Community College transfer Kyle Swannack. The 6’4 225 pound righty from Renton, Washington dominated at Bellevue last season going a perfect 9-0 with an ERA of 1.53 in 76.2 innings pitched. If he continues his junior college dominance in the Pac-12, then the Cougars will have an excellent one-two punch at the top of the weekend rotation.
The final spot in the rotation will see redshirt freshman Scott Simon getting the nod. Simon didn’t participate in the 2011 season as the Cougars wanted Simons to put on some weight onto his lanky 6’7 frame. Simons checked in to Washington State in the fall of 2010 at 170 pounds, but, according to Marbut, is now up to 210 pounds. Simon was a 33rd round pick of the Tampa Bay Rays out of Central Valley High School, but decided to head to school.
The backend of the bullpen will be led by Anthony Drobnick. The redshirt junior righty appeared in 20 games last season accumulating 2-2 record, including a save and a 5.60 ERA in 17.2 innings pitched. Setting up Drobnick will be junior LHP Richie Ochoa. He had a solid 2011 season with the Cougars going 5-2 including two saves with a 3.11 ERA in 20 appearances all out of the bullpen. He continued his strong pitching in the West Coast League with Bellingham. He made 12 appearances (seven starts) going 2-3 with one save and an ERA of 1.65.
The Cougars should be a fine squad in a highly competitive Pac-12 this year. The biggest issue for the Cougars in the conference is the fact they have two squads in Stanford and Arizona who are many media members and fans’ early picks for a Super Regional or College World Series bid.
It all begins for the Cougars on February 17th when they visit traditional SEC power Mississippi State for the start of a three game series in Starkville.