Even as the COVID-19 pandemic halted, and promptly ended, Washington State’s 2020 baseball season, the program’s momentum rolled along through the spring, summer and fall, in the form of a $10 million, 12,000 square-foot building that began to take shape behind the third-base line.
Although he was stuck in an office or behind a Zoom screen much of that time, first-year coach Brian Green would occasionally escape his home for fresh air and exercise, walking the Pullman hills until he arrived at the state-of-the-art baseball complex on the north side of WSU’s campus.
Green would snap a few photos and share them on social media to update fans and followers on the progress of the BTO (Back to Omaha) Project, anticipating the day his players would take advantage of the amenities inside – the specs include a 1,300 square-foot locker room, 1,500 square-foot weight and cardio room, academic area, team meeting room, areas for Cougar equipment, nutrition and athletic medicine and coaches offices.
Now that the Cougars are in the door, Green’s found it hard to get them to leave.
“No joke, it’s gotten there,” Green said last week in a preseason news conference. “When the coaches leave, they’re still here and it’s, ‘Hey, go home.’ Or, we’re getting a lot more texts at night about the kids hitting in the barn late at night. Those are things they’re able to do because they can go from here to there.
“They’re not traveling, they’re not driving back and forth, shuttling back and forth. Their laundry is done here for them. They throw it into the chute, they come in and punch code early in the morning and their stuff’s already done. They can get into a hot tub or cold tub before practice or after practice. It’s really been that way and it’s been that way for the coaches, too.”
The Cougars have cut the metaphorical ribbon, but it may be a while before they truly settle into their new home. WSU will hold a celebratory facility reveal on March 30, but first Green’s baseball team will go on the road for 25 consecutive games, playing in California, Utah, Seattle, Oregon, Nevada and Arizona before returning to Pullman for a three-game series against Stanford.
It’ll mark the program’s longest stretch of away games since 2003, when the Cougars played 28 straight road games to open the season. The 2021 season opens with a four-game series against UC Davis, which includes a Saturday doubleheader.
“We’re looking forward to the opportunities to just go play,” Green said. “We had, prior to COVID, Week 3 and Week 4 were actually home series. We were excited about opening that up with the new facility and letting the fans see that. I’ve gotten a little bit of flak for that schedule, but that was a touch out of our control. … It’s been a challenge for teams to come here. We’ve tried like crazy to get home series Week 3 or 4, couldn’t do it.”
Last season, the Cougars opened with a 2-5 record but started to turn things around at the end of a four-game series at Hawaii, winning seven of their final nine games before the season was called off.
Thanks in part to the scorching hot bat of first baseman Kyle Manzardo, WSU scored at least 10 runs in four of its final seven games. The Coeur d’Alene native will enter the 2021 season with a 17-game hitting streak that began in 2019. Although he’s yet to swing a bat in 2021, the junior first baseman has collected a handful of preseason accolades, being named a preseason third-team All-American by the Collegiate Baseball Writer’s Association and Collegiate Baseball. Manzardo, a Lake City product, was also one of two WSU athletes recently nominated for the Seattle Sports Star of the Year honor.
“You would never know, he really has the right mentality to be a great baseball player,” Green said of Manzardo, whose batting average of .435 was second in the Pac-12 last season. “I texted our kids last night on GroupMe. We texted and I said, ‘Guys, our four best hitters were in the barn longer than anyone on the team last year. Do you think there might be a correlation to that?’ And that’s Kyle.
“He’s just really committed to being great. He doesn’t care about the accolades. It’s the bad mustache, it’s the flannel, it’s the beanie and it’s being at the yard all day and hitting all day.”
The Cougars return nine players who made starts last season and bring back ace pitcher Zane Mills, who was 3-0 in four starts last season with an earned-run average of 1.44. Outfielder Justin Van Den Brake and infielder Jack Smith both hit better than .300 last season and combined for 30 RBIs.
“The keys to us positionally, for us as a coaching staff, are going to be catching and the defense,” Green said.
“Our ability as catchers to block and receive, do a great job at that and be lengthy with that, and then to have a two-strike approach at the plate.”
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