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Cougars Learned Painful Lessons WSU’s Worst Baseball Season Was An Education For Players

The 42 losses were the most in a storied history that dates to 1892. The 13 wins were the fewest since 1955, when only 21 games were played. The weather was horrible, the pitching worse.

And then there was the embarrassment of a 30-6 loss to archrival Washington and a 19-1 defeat at the hands of NAIA opponent Lewis-Clark State.

Indeed, 1997 was a year most Washington State baseball fans would like to forget.

But fourth-year coach Steve Farrington wants his returning players, all 20 of them, to remember every humiliating moment and learn from each one. It’s a part of the maturation process that Farrington hopes will eventually restore the high level of respect his program once enjoyed.

The Cougars aren’t there yet, but as they prepare for today’s 1 p.m. Pacific-10 Conference Northern Division opener against Oregon State, there are encouraging signs the turn-around has started.

Despite a tough early season schedule, WSU was 7-7 before running into a hot California team and dropping the last three games on its annual southern swing. And the Cougars bounced back from those losses by thumping Gonzaga 18-4 in Spokane earlier this week.

“We’re a year older and it shows, even just in the way we carry ourselves,” Farrington said of his team, which returns six starting position players and three of its top five pitchers. “Last year, there was too much newness, too many distractions. But now that we’re a year older, nothing is new.

“Now it’s all part of what we do all the time. We’ve been there, so we know what to expect. Now, it’s just a matter of whether we can continue to mature between the lines, baseball-wise, and learn to play through adversity and just deal with the game.”

The Cougars have shown they can mash the baseball. Through their first 18 games, they have hit 25 home runs - four more than their opponents - and boast a .313 team batting average. Junior first baseman Casey Kelley is hitting almost .350, and four other starters have their averages over .300.

Sophomore shortstop Shawn Stevenson, who stretched the hitting streak he initiated last spring to a school-record 28 consecutive games earlier this year, has remained productive at the plate and continues to improve defensively.

Cougars pitchers still are giving up too many runs - almost eight per game - but seem to have improved their mental approach under first-year assistant Russ Swan, a former Seattle Mariners pitcher.

Last year, WSU pitchers walked 304 batters and hit 92 more. This spring, they are throwing more first-pitch strikes and reducing the number of opposing baserunners.

Sophomore lefty Wade Parrish, after posting a 1-7 record and 9.00 earned run average as a rookie, is 3-1 with a 4.42 ERA this year. Sophomore Les McTavish (1-1) has dropped his ERA from 12.74 to 4.61, and newcomers Jason Grove and Jamaal Gaines both have ERAs under 5.

Still, there is work to be done.

“We’re playing good baseball,” Farrington said, “but we need to play better. We’ve got to get to where we’re basing things on how well we’re playing. Can we do better than this? Is this my best effort today? How do I respond, after going 0 for 4, on that fifth at-bat?

“It sounds easy, but it’s not. It’s something that takes time to learn and we had to learn on the run with most of these guys last year. We’re primarily going to be the same ballclub again next year, and it’s going to be fun to watch us mature even more and grow into a good team.”

Two-time champion Washington is favored to win the four-team North Division title, with Oregon State picked to provide the most opposition. Coaches have picked WSU third, followed by Portland State.

As in recent years, the regular-season champions of the Pac-10’s Northern and Southern Divisions will meet in a best-of-3 series to determine the league’s automatic berth in the 48-team NCAA playoffs. But for the first time, that playoff series will be at the site of the Northern Division champion.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FAST FACTS: Coach: Steve Farrington Coach’s record: 75-117 overall (4th year); same at WSU. 1997 record: 13-42 overall; 7-17 in Pacific-10 Northern Division, 3rd. 1998 record to date: 8-10 overall; 0-0 Pac-10 North. Top returnees: 1B Casey Kelley, SS Shawn Stevenson, DH Steve Curran, P Todd Meldahl, P Wade Parrish, OF Steve Gleason, OF Ray Hattenburg. Top newcomers: P Jamaal Gaines, P-OF Jason Grove, OF Dusty Edler, P Robin Guiver. 1998 outlook: Those young Cougars that took such an unprecedented beating last spring are a year older and, in most cases, a whole lot better. Farrington has added a nice mix of prep and junior-college newcomers who can learn in a more confident atmosphere. The bats should be productive all spring, but the search for a reliable fourth starting pitcher could be painful. The Cougars aren’t ready to challenge Washington’s recent domination of the Pac-10 North, but it will be interesting to see if they’re back on the same level as Oregon State.

This sidebar appeared with the story: FAST FACTS: Coach: Steve Farrington Coach’s record: 75-117 overall (4th year); same at WSU. 1997 record: 13-42 overall; 7-17 in Pacific-10 Northern Division, 3rd. 1998 record to date: 8-10 overall; 0-0 Pac-10 North. Top returnees: 1B Casey Kelley, SS Shawn Stevenson, DH Steve Curran, P Todd Meldahl, P Wade Parrish, OF Steve Gleason, OF Ray Hattenburg. Top newcomers: P Jamaal Gaines, P-OF Jason Grove, OF Dusty Edler, P Robin Guiver. 1998 outlook: Those young Cougars that took such an unprecedented beating last spring are a year older and, in most cases, a whole lot better. Farrington has added a nice mix of prep and junior-college newcomers who can learn in a more confident atmosphere. The bats should be productive all spring, but the search for a reliable fourth starting pitcher could be painful. The Cougars aren’t ready to challenge Washington’s recent domination of the Pac-10 North, but it will be interesting to see if they’re back on the same level as Oregon State.



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