PULLMAN – When a baseball team loses four of its top six hitters and its top three pitchers, it’s easy to see why Washington State was picked to finish 10th in the 11-team Pac-12 Conference this season.
But that news fell on deaf ears for WSU coach Marty Lees and the 2019 Cougars, who are excited about their young talent – WSU’s recruiting class was ranked No. 28 in the country by D1baseball.com – and think this spring could be a surprise year.
In his fourth year, Lees and crew will try to improve on a disappointing 16-33-1 mark (8-21-1 Pac-12) from a year ago. The Cougs open the season Friday at Saint Mary’s.
“There’s not a lot of people who think we have a chance at being good, but we know what’s in this locker room, we know the grind we’ve went through the last few months,” Lees said. “The energy is high as it ever has been, so we’re just excited to get down and start playing.”
Among WSU’s returners is a core group of solid hitters and fielders.
Lees calls center fielder Danny Sinatro one of the best outfielders in the conference. The speedy junior made a name for himself with diving catches last season and led the team with nine stolen bases in 11 attempts.
Fan favorite Andres Alvares will hold down the shortstop spot for the third straight season. The senior will try to improve on his .263 batting average that was down from his sophomore campaign, but he’s no slouch in the field, where he committed only one error in conference play.
Rounding out the trio is utility infielder Dillon Plew, whose .277 average and 30 runs scored are tops among returners. Plew has moved around the infield, playing second base as a freshman, third as a junior and, now, first base as a senior.
Add in senior Rob Teel at catcher and it’s not a bad bunch. Teel hit .267 and tallied 13 RBI despite missing half the season with an injury.
“I really like how this team has come together,” Lees said. “When you line up from starting at catcher and go to the middle of our infield all the way out to center, we return a very good defensive team. Our shortstop had one error in Pac-12 play last year – that’s a pretty good start.”
The pitching rotation, meanwhile, features more questions than answers. There are plenty of new arms in the bullpen and it should be a welcome site to a pitching crew that accumulated a 5.66 ERA last season – 10th in the conference.
Junior lefty A.J. Block (1-4, 4.91 ERA) is the leading returner and will start in WSU’s first game.
The Cougars’ other projected starters are sophomore Hayden Rosenkrants (0-2, 4.95), junior Dylan Steen of Spokane, a NJCAA All-American last year at College of Southern Idaho, and freshman Ky Bush, an all-state player out of Utah.
“I’m really excited about our pitching rotation, especially since we’ve got a lot of new guys this year,” Block said. “But the most exciting thing about that is it seems like everyone is ready to go right away.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of an adjustment period in the fall and early in the spring, especially the freshman. They seem like they’re ready to get on the mound and make a difference right away.”
Among WSU’s newcomers in the field are Clarkston product Koby Blunt in the outfield and sophomore Garrett Gouldsmith at second base – a transfer from New Mexico.
“The addition of Garret Gouldsmith in the middle of the field has added a personality that’s needed,“ Lees said. ”He’s a real baseball player. He’s great to be around, he knows what he’s doing.”
With the Palouse in the middle of a days-long winter storm, the Cougars have had to practice indoors and they’re eager to get out and play another team in warmer Moraga, Calififornia. The four-game series will go through Sunday.
WSU’s home debut is scheduled for Feb. 28 against Nevada.
“We’re tired of being inside and we’re ready to go play someone else,” Lees said.
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