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‘We know we’re close’: Washington State baseball heads into offseason on bittersweet note

UPDATED: Mon., May 23, 2022

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Washington State made an inspired push during the final month of its baseball season after a bleak start, but ultimately fell short – by just one Pac-12 win – of securing a spot in the eight-team field at the conference’s inaugural postseason tournament.

In early April, the Cougars sat at the bottom of the conference standings with a 2-10 record.

Yet WSU (27-26, 12-18 Pac-12) won four of its last six Pac-12 series to finish with its third consecutive winning season – counting the truncated 2020 season – and one game behind eighth-place Arizona State in conference play.

An unsatisfying conclusion, to be sure, but not bad for a team that had been “essentially left for dead seven or eight weeks ago,” coach Brian Green said.

An up-and-down 2022 campaign came to its bittersweet end Saturday at Bailey-Brayton Field, when WSU completed its first-ever series sweep of the Sun Devils. Green gathered his players afterward and spoke at length in the huddle, commending their resolve.

“This is a character team and an integrity team – clearly,” said Green, the third-year coach. “There’s a lot of teams, coaches included, that would roll over when we were at 2-10.

“To bump your batting average up 40 points and jump your ERA down a run and a half, and to continue to fight the way they did and come out of this thing with a winning season … I’m just really proud to be the head coach here right now.”

WSU found new life midway through last month, posting series wins over Arizona, Oregon and USC to climb back into Pac-12 tourney contention, but the upswing started too late.

A 10-game losing streak, beginning March 18 at Washington and ending April 3 versus Utah, doomed the Cougs, who were officially eliminated from the postseason race after suffering a sweep at UCLA two weekends ago. Four home losses combined against Cal and Utah and three defeats at UW stand out among WSU’s most regrettable performances.

“I definitely think, with the younger guys coming back … it’s going to leave a little bit of a sour taste in their mouths,” said catcher Jake Meyer, one of seven players honored on senior day this weekend. “Obviously, it was a good way to finish, but just to know that we were one game away from making the postseason, it’s going to give them a little bit more motivation and drive to make sure we make it next year.”

A new-look pitching staff, featuring two transfers in its starting rotation and a host of first-year Cougs in its bullpen, should develop this offseason after experiencing mixed results this year, putting up a combined 5.17 ERA to rank seventh in the conference. WSU pitchers struggled with walks but did, however, finish in the top half of the Pac-12 rankings in strikeouts and hits allowed.

The Cougar batters, attempting to recapture the magic of last year’s ultra-productive lineup, put unhealthy pressure on themselves early this season and were hitting just under .230 overall after two dozen games. WSU logged a .265 batting average this season and slugged .383 – both last in the Pac-12.

“We were really pressing and trying too hard and thinking about results and where we were going to be instead of focusing on ‘today,’ ” Green said.

Coming off a 26-23, 13-17 finish in 2021, the Cougars were facing expectations – internally and from outside of the program – to take another significant step forward.

“I think we really lost a lot of the process, and that’s on me and our coaches to get better at,” Green added. “If you work and focus on the process and have good players, you can get out of that (slump) and our guys really started trusting that process. That’s the biggest takeaway.”

Looking ahead, the Cougars will need to replace at least three key position players. Infielder Jack Smith is the most notable departure. The four-year starter was always reliable in an inconsistent lineup and hit a team-best .358 – sixth in the Pac-12. Outfielder Justin Van De Brake recorded a hit in 16 of his last 20 games as a Cougar. Outfielder Collin Montez, a starter since 2018, batted just .191 this season after registering a .316 average last year.

Meyer and shortstop Kodie Kolden, a four-year starter from Post Falls, were honored at senior day but both could elect to come back to Pullman for a final season of eligibility. Kolden’s batting average also dipped from last season to this year, from .320 to .259.

Regulars in the lineup set to return include senior outfielder Jacob McKeon, junior outfielder Bryce Matthews, junior second baseman Kyle Russell and sophomore third baseman Elijah Hainline. McKeon sizzled down the stretch, batting .439 with 17 extra-base hits over his last 21 games. Matthews hit .500 over his last five games and raised his average above .300 late in the year. Washington natives Russell and Hainline emerged as deft defenders early in their careers.

On the mound, WSU brings back its ace in junior Grant Taylor (4-5, 4.67 ERA), who was named the Pac-12’s pitcher of the week Monday after tossing a complete-game, two-hit shutout against ASU on Thursday. Transfer lefties Cole McMillan (5-5, 5.45 ERA) and McKabe Cottrell (2-6, 6.35 ERA) are early favorites to again be weekend starters in 2023, but they probably aren’t locks.

WSU’s four most commonly used bullpen arms combined for a sub-4.50 ERA across 135 innings and all are expected to return next season for a program that hopes to break through in one of the NCAA’s top conferences.

“To get from 12 or 13 wins to 14 or 15, that’s a huge step in a league like this,” Green said. “That was something we talked about and I think we probably put too much on that. Just stay the course and stay with the process and we’ll get there.

“In back-to-back years we’ve knocked on the door of being in the top half of the league. It’s a game here and a game there. We’ve just gotta do a better job of coaching and teaching and recruiting and developing, and following our pillars. We know we’re close. There are a lot of positives – clearly, the way we finished.”

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