PULLMAN – Shortly after Marty Lees became Washington State’s newest baseball coach, he contacted the team’s best player and told him he was switching positions.
Ian Hamilton, a junior who earned All-Pac-12 honors as a closer his first two seasons, would take over the role of Friday starter. Rather than shut the door on opponents for one inning, maybe two, Hamilton will become the team’s de-facto ace, called upon to take the Cougars deep into games.
“About 30 minutes after I got the job in June we just said, Ian, are you ready to become a Friday night starter,” Lees said. “And he said absolutely.”
Starting on Friday nights in the Pac-12 is a rough business, and means Hamilton can look forward to duels with star pitchers like California’s, Daulton Jefferies, Oregon’s Matt Krook and Stanford’s Cal Quantrill, each of whom is projected by some prognosticators to be drafted in the first round of the 2016 MLB draft.
The responsibility of setting up each series for the Cougars is one that Hamilton seems to relish.
“I’m definitely excited about it,” Hamilton said. “I’m looking forward to the season starting. I haven’t been thinking about anything else. I just really want this to start.”
Thinking Hamilton can succeed as a starter does not take a leap of faith, even if he spent his first two seasons in Pullman as a reliever. The flame thrower started in the Cape Cod League this last summer, using his 97-mph fastball to pick up co-MVP honors of the league All-Star game.
While in Massachusetts, Hamilton added a third pitch, a 12-6 curveball, to supplement his slider and heater.
“I wasn’t really even planning to start there,” Hamilton said. “So going in there, then starting and having pretty good success was kind of a huge confidence booster for this season.”
Hamilton will lead a talented, if unproven, rotation that should form the backbone of WSU’s team this season. The current plan calls for Damon Jones, a 6-foot-5 lefty from Twin Falls, Idaho, to start on Saturdays. Jones is a recent transfer from the College of Southern Idaho.
WSU’s previous coaching staff was justifiably dubious that Parker McFadden would ever enroll at Washington State, given that the Yelm HS product was expected to be an early selection in the 2015 MLB Draft. But the freshman with a 94-mph fastball was drafted lower than many projected on draft day, and is now penciled in as WSU’s Sunday starter.
If a series stretches to Monday, like the four-game season-opening matchup at Texas State that begins today, the Cougars will turn to another first-year player, freshman Ryan Ward, who was the Oregon Player of the Year last year.
The Cougars finished 29-27 last year, and had an 11-19 record in Pac-12 games.
On offense the Cougars will look slightly more familiar, with a style that appears to be similar to the methodical approach preferred by previous coach Donnie Marbut.
“Typically, we’re not going to be a wall-bangin’ home-run team,” utility fielder Trek Stemp said. “We’re going to have to play small ball. We’ve got some guys that have got some pop; you’ll see some home runs hit. But you’re going to see a lot of stolen bases out of us.”
Still, it appears the Cougars have some new tricks in store.
“Marty’s got a great baseball mind,” Stemp said. “I’m not going to really go into detail what we’re going to do on the bases, but you’ll see a lot of cool stuff.”
Lees admits that his position player pool is not as deep as those of the Pac-12’s top programs, and to that end he expects the talent he does have to be versatile. So, expect to see Patrick McGrath at first and third base.
Jack Strunc will play shortstop and second base and while Stemp might spend most of his games in the outfield, he spends most of his time in practice at second base, due to the more technical aspects of playing infield.
Former WSU baseball coach Donnie Marbut has been hired by the Pac-12 Networks as a baseball analyst. Marbut was the head coach at WSU from 2005-2015, and began his career at WSU as an assistant in 2004.
Gonzaga’s offense spent all last season simmering, but never reached a boil. The Bulldogs had enviable pitching and solid defense, but the lack of bats yielded a disappointing 24-28 final record, and a 13-14 mark against other West Coast Conference teams.
The Bulldogs did not qualify for the WCC Championships for the first time since the 2012 season.
“I feel good about the guys who are returning, but we need one or two new guys to step up and perform for us,” said head coach Mark Machtolf. “We really didn’t get that last year from the young kids. If you have 10 or 12 of them, you hope that maybe one or two step up and last year we never really got that. “
The good news is that this season has already gotten off to a better start, even though it officially opens today when the Bulldogs play at Grand Canyon in Phoenix. Better weather than usual has given the Bulldogs more practice opportunities than usual, and GU has scrimmaged every weekend during the preseason.
And the Bulldogs should once again be able to prevent other teams from scoring many runs. Brandon Bailey, the team’s best pitcher the last two seasons, is back as GU’s Friday starter.
Fellow pitcher Eli Morgan and Calvin LeBrun are coming off impressive offseasons in which both were named All-Americans while playing in summer leagues.
The hurlers will throw to returning WCC Defensive Player of the Year Joey Harris, who was among the top five nationally last year in both runners caught stealing and caught-stealing percentage.
And there are some reasons to be encouraged offensively. Shortstop Dustin Breshears hit just .260 last season, but batted .375 over the season’s final 10 games. Also back for the Bulldogs is first-team all-conference first baseman Taylor Jones, who had an OPS of .959 while batting .358.
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