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‘Pumped to be a part of it’: With highly competitive Frisco Classic on tap, Washington State searches for stability at the plate

March 3, 2022 Updated Thu., March 3, 2022 at 4:51 p.m.

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

In the field and on the mound, Washington State is living up to coach Brian Green’s expectations.

At the plate, it’s a work in progress.

“On the offensive side, our identity needs to match our experience,” Green said earlier this week. “We have a lot of experience. We’re old. But early in the year, we haven’t played old.”

Minus a couple of shaky outings, WSU’s pitching staff is coming along nicely. The Cougs (6-3) also played clean defense in all but one game.

“Our identity has been pretty mature and pretty slow,” Green continued of his team’s pitchers and position players. “That’s been great to see, but our offense has got to match that.”

WSU will probably need a complete effort to compete this weekend, when it takes part in one of the most prominent in-season college baseball tournaments: the Frisco Classic. The Cougars meet Texas A&M at 5 p.m. Friday at Riders Field in Frisco, Texas, then square off against Wichita State and Iowa in the next two days.

“Really pumped to be a part of it,” said Green, who reached out to tourney organizers two years ago and jumped on the opportunity when the Frisco Classic invited the Cougars to participate in the 2022 edition. “Phenomenal tournament. Psychopath marketing and social media, 10,000 fans, unbelievable facilities – all that.”

Offense was their calling card last season, but it’s been a slow start for the Cougar sticks this campaign. They’re hitting .253 as a team – second-worst in the Pac-12 – and have struck out 74 times (eight per game).

“We’re not where we hoped to be early on,” Green said. “We’ve got some guys scuffling who are putting way too much pressure on themselves, and we hope to alleviate that.”

Veteran outfielder Collin Montez, an offensive standout in 2021, has been surprisingly off-target at the dish. He’s hitting .154 with 12 strikeouts. Touted juco transfer Hylan Hall, while stellar defensively, is batting just .167.

Montez may have gotten the knock he needed to snap the funk Wednesday. He sent a two-run single to left field to highlight a four-run ninth inning in the Cougars’ 9-8 comeback win over Tarleton State in Stephenville, Texas. Sophomore reliever Chase Grillo, a Gonzaga transfer, punched out two batters with two Texan runners in scoring position to shut the door in the bottom of the ninth.

“We’ve got too many guys that think they’ve got capes on their backs, and if somebody’s not hitting, then they’re Superman and they’re supposed to fly aerial and hit doubles and home runs in every at-bat,” Green said.

“We got off to a start where we were pressing offensively and I was getting on them like crazy to grow up and knock it off,” he added, noting that WSU’s lineup had double-digit strikeouts in each of its first five games. “I was flipping out and they were flipping out because it’s something we know we have to improve on. I think we’re showing signs of slowing down, trusting the process and doing a better job of making pitchers work more so we can stretch their bullpens.”

Three Cougar regulars are batting over .300 – infielders Kyle Russell (.394, .500 on-base percentage), Jack Smith (.343) and Jacob McKeon (.333, .514 OBP). Russell was moved up to the leadoff spot Wednesday after batting later in the order for the first eight games.

“He’s just kinda hitting everything,” Green said.

True freshman Spokane native Elijah Hainline (.333) has filled in admirably at shortstop for Post Falls product Kodie Kolden, who’s been sidelined since sustaining a lower-body injury in the final game of WSU’s four-game, season-opening series at Hawaii. Green confirmed that Kolden, an efficient hitter last year who went 0 for 12 in the split with the Rainbow Warriors last month, will play in Frisco.

The Cougars have countered some of their hitting struggles with discipline at the plate. They’re averaging five walks and two plunked batters per game. WSU’s .382 OBP is good for fifth in the conference.

Highly rated transfers Austin Plante and Nate Stevens have been used sparingly so far.

“We’ve got some guys on the bench watching an offense hit .255,” Green said. “Right now, it’s time to get some other guys in there and give them an opportunity.”

WSU’s pitching has offset the team’s erratic start offensively. As a staff, the Cougars boast a 3.53 ERA and are limiting opponents to a .205 batting average. They have fanned 95 batters against 43 walks and 57 hits.

“Our command has been really good on the mound,” Green said.

Pitching depth was a glaring issue a season ago, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Three starters are locked into their roles and 11 relievers have seen time. They don’t have many long-relief options, but the Cougars are well-stocked with capable arms who “can do a nice job for an inning or two.”

“We’re going to be able to stay in games,” Green said. “We don’t feel like we have to punt games away if we’re chasing three or four runs early. We can stop it right there.”

Sophomore ace Grant Taylor will presumably start against Texas A&M. He tossed a scoreless six innings in a series-opening victory over Long Island last week in Peoria, Arizona, atoning for a rough opener in which he failed to make it out of the second frame.

Transfer southpaws Cole McMillan (1-0, 2.00 ERA) and McKabe Cottrell (1-1, 3.48 ERA), a Spokane native out of Freeman High, appear to have claimed starting jobs.

Cam Liss, a junior left-handed Ferris High grad and Spokane Falls Community College transfer, has dazzled out of the bullpen over 12⅓ innings in five appearances. He enjoys a 1.46 ERA and a team-high 15 strikeouts against five walks and five hits. Liss seems to be developing into WSU’s relief ace, but Green indicated he may be in line for some starts down the road.

“Cam Liss has been tremendously valuable for us,” Green said.

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