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Shane Matheny’s improvement on offense helps ignite WSU’s surge of late

Washington St. infielder Shane Matheny (28) warms up between innings during a game against Gonzaga at the Patterson Baseball Complex. (James Snook / FOR THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Washington St. infielder Shane Matheny (28) warms up between innings during a game against Gonzaga at the Patterson Baseball Complex. (James Snook / FOR THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

PULLMAN – Third-baseman Shane Matheny has made tremendous strides at the plate this season, and the rest of the Washington State offense has followed suit.

For two years, Matheny’s defensive abilities at the hot corner kept him in the Cougars lineup, even though his bat was not there yet.

“Last year he was hitting seventh to ninth in the lineup and we were bunting him with one out so there’d be a positive outcome,” coach Marty Lees said. “This year you can just see the difference a year makes in a kid as they mature and grow.”

Now Matheny bats third for the Cougars. He ranks second on the team in runs batted in with 27 and leads the team in total bases.

For starters, WSU’s third-baseman is making a lot more contact with the ball. As a sophomore, Matheny batted .226 and struck out on 23.2 percent of his at-bats. As a junior, he is batting .301 and strikes out just 18 percent of the time.

He is also making much better contact. His 71 total bases are the result of a slugging percentage of .497, and he leads the Cougars with an OPS of .912.

Matheny’s bat has made such an impact that Lees has adjusted the rest of the WSU lineup around him, moving James Rudkin – whose .316 batting average leads the Cougars – into a cleanup role behind Matheny.

The Cougars have bigger sluggers than Rudkin, but that high batting average prevents teams from pitching around Matheny, who earlier in the season was intentionally walked five times, the most of any Cougar.

The effects on the WSU offense have been obvious. The Cougars have already hit more doubles (85) and home runs (18) than any year since 2013, and still have four more Pac-12 series remaining.

WSU (20-21, 6-12 Pac-12) has its toughest games ahead of it, but has won its last two series at the expense of No. 30 Washington and Utah, the defending conference champion.

Matheny’s improvement at the plate began in the middle of last season. He then carried that momentum into a summer season in Rhode Island, playing against some of the best college players in the country.

“I felt really good in Rhode Island,” Matheny said. “I was squaring up and hitting more balls, the balls were dropping, I was more relaxed. So I was getting more doubles and home runs.”

Matheny credits his success in Rhose Island against top pitching with giving him confidence that turned into a better approach at the plate. His coach says that, plus a strong work ethic, has turned one of WSU’s best defensive players into one of its best hitters as well.

“He’s a very tireless, hard worker and he’s not satisfied with just being OK,” Lees said. “If he feels like he has a bad game, bad series or bad (at-bat), he’s working before and after to try and figure something out.”

Gonzaga falls to third place in WCC

Gonzaga (26-16, 15-6 WCC) fell to third place in the West Coast Conference after dropping two games in its series against Saint Mary’s, the defending conference co-champion.

But the Zags still control their own destiny in the WCC title race. The two teams ahead of them in the standings – BYU (26-14, 14-4) and Loyola Marymount (30-14, 16-5) – will each visit Spokane after GU takes this weekend off for its bye week.

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