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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Do damage’: Standout Washington State hitters Jack Smith, Jacob McKeon spearhead Cougs’ offensive resurgence

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Red-hot hitters for Washington State’s baseball team, Jack Smith and Jacob McKeon live by a straightforward approach at the plate.

“Go up there and swing hard,” Smith said. “Do damage.”

Smith and McKeon – roommates, captains and the two most productive batters for the surging Cougars – are embracing an aggressive, simplified method on offense, to the detriment of opposing pitchers.

“We talk about it a lot: See the ball up and try to hit it as hard as you can,” Smith said. “Good things will usually happen if you stick with the process. Having that mindset to do damage and not worrying about hitting little singles or just putting the ball in play, that’s been huge.”

Smith, a senior who splits time at first and third base, has been a model of consistency for a WSU lineup that endured a sluggish start this season but turned the corner in early April. He boasts a team-best .373 batting average – second in the Pac-12 and nearly first – and has recorded a hit in 35 of the Cougars’ 46 games, including 10 of them (three doubles) and six RBIs in his past three contests.

“He’s a tremendous, positive influence in the dugout and one of our hardest workers,” third-year WSU coach Brian Green said of Smith, a fifth-year Cougar from Mercer Island, Washington. “He hits and works, hits and works, hits and works. That’s why a guy who doesn’t have tremendous speed or power is hitting (at such a high clip). He’s a grinder and it’s awesome to see him have success, because he totally deserves it.”

McKeon, a junior and second-year Cougars slugger who usually bats behind Smith in the order, is in the midst of a torrid stretch. The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder from Phoenix is riding a 14-game hitting streak and is batting 25 for 55 (.455) in that span with 16 of his 29 RBIs and five of his team-high six home runs on the year.

“He’s as hot as any hitter we’ve had in a while,” Green said.

A .336 batter, McKeon took home the Pac-12’s Player of the Week award late last month.

“Just trust your body and mind, and the results will come,” said McKeon, who has made starts at first, designated hitter and in the outfield. “I’m just keeping it as simple as possible – seeing and hitting the ball.”

Smith and McKeon have been key to WSU’s late-season rise. The Cougars (23-23, 9-15 Pac-12) have won nine of their past 10 games and four of their past five series in their push for a Pac-12 tournament berth.

WSU plays its penultimate Pac-12 series of the season this weekend at 15th-ranked UCLA. The three-game set begins at 7 p.m. Friday at Jackie Robinson Stadium in Los Angeles.

“We kept pounding away, kept chipping and found a rhythm at the plate,” McKeon said. “Really, we just never stopped believing.”

Coming off a prolific offensive season in 2021, WSU entered this season with high expectations surrounding its lineup, but Cougar batters slumped early this year. The team’s hitting woes were glaring during a 10-game slide between late March and early April. That skid – and the negativity that accompanied it – seems like a distant memory.

“The way we’re playing, the way we’re feeling in the dugout, it’s so much different,” Smith said. “Those losing streaks can have a big impact on your year, but the way we’re feeling right now, it’s a positive mindset.”

The Cougars are in a groove across the board, and at the heart of their upswing has been an offensive resurgence headlined by Smith and McKeon. WSU has tallied double-digit hit totals in nine of its past 12 games. In one month, the Cougars’ team batting average has climbed from just under .230 to .265.

“We were getting too small and shortening our swings (earlier this season), trying to do too little with the ball,” Smith said. “When you go up there and your goal is to just do damage, you take (unnecessary thinking) out of it.

“It’s so easy to get down on yourself in baseball. It’s a game of failure. How you come back from failure and not worrying about the past, that’s what matters. It’s the last year in the program for a lot of guys, so don’t look back.”

Smith, for one, saved his best season for last.

He started 31 games combined in his freshman and sophomore years, then weighed his options after former coach Marty Lees was fired following the 2019 season.

“Going into my junior year, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Smith said. “But once I heard that Brian Green was coming in, I was like, ‘OK, best hitting coach in the nation. Why would I leave?’ I love Pullman, love being a Coug, and once Brian Green came in, it was perfect. I decided to stay here, learn how to hit and earn it.”

Under Green’s guidance, Smith began to prioritize “hitting for average.” He used the coronavirus-disrupted 2020 summer to slim down by about 20 pounds and develop as an athlete, then solidified himself as a starting infielder, secured a spot on Green’s leadership council and batted .309 with 16 doubles and 39 RBIs across 67 games between 2020-21. This season, the 6-3, 195-pound Smith leads the Cougars with 33 RBIs and 15 doubles.

“I’m not going to hit the ball out of the park a ton, but I’m going to hit it hard and get on base before our power guys,” Smith said.

Born in Scottsdale, Arizona, Smith moved to Western Washington when he was 7 or 8 years old. He comes from a family of accomplished tennis players, but baseball became his passion in 2011 when he led his Mercer Island club to a Little League World Series appearance.

Smith helped Mercer Island High to a State 3A title as a sophomore and raked in all-state honors as a senior shortstop. He was selected by the Seattle Mariners in the 39th round of the 2017 MLB draft but accepted a scholarship offer to WSU instead.

McKeon came to WSU in 2021 after two junior college seasons at Central Arizona College in Coolidge. He’d been recruited lightly despite earning an All-Arizona nod for his work at Mountain Pointe High.

He hit .286 as a true freshman for Central Arizona during its national championship season in 2019. Although McKeon appeared in only 10 games in 2020 because of an injury, he’d caught the attention of WSU’s new coaches.

“It was pretty much ‘survive and adapt,’ ” he said of his junior college career. “Those guys are crazy down there. I loved my time being there, but once it was time to go to a Division I program, WSU stepped in.”

Asked why he chose the Cougars, McKeon pointed to “the staff and the way they teach hitting – since I’m a hitter,” he said.

McKeon made a smooth transition to the Pac-12 level last year, receiving guidance from Cougar veterans such as Smith, infielder Kodie Kolden and first baseman Kyle Manzardo, who was picked by the Tampa Bay Rays in the second round of the 2021 MLB draft. McKeon started 33 games in the outfield and finished second on the team last year, behind Manzardo, with a .345 batting average.

This season, McKeon is pacing the Cougars with a .445 on-base percentage. He has drawn a team-high 29 walks, but always seems to deal out damage when pitchers leave offerings hanging up in the zone.

“Just stick to the approach,” he said. “Make it as simple as possible.”