WSU BASEBALL: After Rough Start, Cougars At A Crossroads

Coming off of consecutive postseason appearances, there was lots of talk about this being the WSU baseball team that finally returns the Cougs to the promised land of Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series.

But after 24 games, one thing has become abundantly clear: This team isn't a part of that class. At least, not yet.

After beating Gonzaga tonight, WSU stands at 12-12, 1-5 in the Pac-10. The Cougs were swept to open conference play down in Berkeley, and only a furious rally against Stanford on Friday kept the Cougs from heading into the third weekend completely winless in conference play. Both Cal and Stanford are quality opponents -- top 20 in most circles -- but let's just say that a team that fancies itself top 20 in its own right should not be dropping five of six to those two opponents.

It's not hard to pinpoint what's gone wrong for the Cougs.

WSU has taken on a definite identity under coach Donnie Marbut: Solid starting pitching, dependable defense and a death-by-a-million-cuts offense. It's a formula that has made the Cougs one of the tougher teams to deal with in the Pac-10 and led to a third place finish in the conference last year and a second place finish the year before that. 

But that identity has been missing in action this year, even though though it's not readily obvious from looking at the team's overall stats.

On the surface, tthe pitching has been good enough: Adam Conley, the team's Friday night starter, has a 3.26 ERA and a K/9 of 8.82; James Wise has been hit and miss, but a 5.02 ERA isn't the end of the world; and J.D. Leckenby, Richie Ochoa and Paris Shewey are all sporting ERAs of 3.18 or less out of the bullpen with Ochoa and Shewey each striking out about a batter an inning. 

The hitting looks OK, too. The batting average is about 10 points off the pace of last year, but .283 is hardly terrible, and the OBP is almost identical. 

But when you look a little deeper, you can see where the formula is falling apart.

First, the defense. College baseball doesn't have any kind of fancy defensive stats like UZR, but you can get a rudimentary picture of a defense's efficiency by measuring just how many of the overall balls in play turn into outs. Last year, it was 71.2 percent. This year? Just 68.4 percent. A large portion of that is errors; this team is on pace to commit 82 miscues, 13 more than last year.

The really bad thing about that efficiency drop is that the national trend is actually moving the other direction: Because of the new bats this year, which have reduced the speeds of balls off the bat (we'll get to more about that in a second), more balls in play are being turned into outs nationally. When you put this year's efficiency into the context of the suppressed offensive environment, WSU is probably something more like 5 percent worse than last year. Over the course of a game where 35 balls get put into play (the Cougs' average this season), that's the difference between 10 hits and 12 hits for the opposition.

And then ... the offense. I mentioned that the overall numbers don't look bad. But how about the numbers against the three really good teams WSU has played -- Fresno State, Cal and Stanford? You know, the sorts of teams WSU figured to be keeping company with?

Disastrous.

In those nine games -- in which WSU is 1-8 -- the offense was positively punchless. Derek Jones hit .357/.471/.714 (AVG/OBP/SLG), a monster mark befitting a guy who could be an early round draft pick this summer. He even hit what would prove to be the game-winning homer in that great comeback over the Cardinal. 

But only one other player on the team had an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of over .800 in those games (Cody Bartlett), and in most instances, the bats were downright anemic. Matt Argyropoulos, Taylor Ard, Jason Monda and Brett Jacobs all failed to produce even close to their season levels against quality competition, and the part time players were simply awful: The 10 guys who have rotated into the final three spots in the order hit  just .114 combined.

The team slugging percentage in those nine games is .291. Even the Mariners laugh at that.

The pitching hasn't been much better in those nine contests. In three starts, Conley's ERA is a full 7.00 -- it's tough to match the other team when your ace is getting battered. In Wise's two starts, his ERA is 8.53, and Chad Arnold -- last year's ace -- is still trying to work himself back into form after an offseason elbow injury surgery. As a team, the pitching staff is allowing more than nine runs per game, and their K/9 is just 5.64 -- down from 7.13 overall on the season. When your pitching staff is allowing more balls to be put in play and your defense is doing a poor job of converting those balls into outs ... well, you see what happens. 

The big question, of course, is whether the Cougs can get this turned around to fulfill a season that started with such high hopes.

The primary concern at this point is just doing enough to get back into the postseason. Barring some sort of crazy streak, hosting a regional is just a distant dream, but returning to a regional as an at-large selection is still very much within the realm of possibility. The season is only about 45 percent over; for context, the basketball team's season was about 45 percent over after the loss to UCLA in Los Angeles. There's still time, something that's especially true because, unlike basketball, there are still loads of opportunities for WSU to pick up quality wins, as the Pac-10 is one of the toughest baseball conferences in the country. 

That said, it's fair to wonder if a turnaround is realistic.

Factors working for the Cougs? They've got 19 of their remaining 30 games at Bailey-Brayton Field, where they went 20-5 last year and are 8-3 this year. After three at home last weekend, it continues with UCLA and probable No. 1 overall pick Garrett Cole coming to town on Friday. There's even a stretch of nearly one calendar month from April 25 to May 22 where they'll only leave Pullman once to play a single game in Portland against the Pilots. 

And the reality is that this is sort of an odd team in that while Jones and Bartlett are still the main guys, WSU depends heavily on newcomers Ard and Monda, who generally bat fourth and sixth, respectively. While they've struggled against quality pitching, there always remains the chance that they figure some things out in the second half of the season with greater experience. 

Factors working against the Cougs? Well, for starters, they weren't exactly invincible at home this past weekend. The dramatic comeback on Friday provided hope; in fact, it came on the heels of a comeback against Gonzaga. Perhaps the Cougs had rediscovered a little bit of the magic! But a blowout loss on Saturday coupled with a close loss on Sunday that was repeatedly there for the taking sort of erased any of the good feelings.

Additionally, one has to wonder what effect the bats are having on the Cougs. WSU's offense under Marbut has never been one that's going to line up toe-to-toe with an opponent and slug it out -- the Cougs play pressure baseball by working counts, drawing walks, and putting balls into play to force the other team to convert those balls into outs. Countless times over the past few years, we've referred to the Cougar rally where WSU scores two or three runs with only a couple of base hits, none of them of the extra base variety. They'd score one run here, a couple of runs there, until the opponent was down 8-1 after six innings.

But with the balls not coming as hard off the bats, one has to wonder if some of the drop in production is coming from some of the balls being put in play that would have resulted in hits through holes the past two years are now just routine outs, or if some of the balls that might have left the yard or dropped in a gap are just settling into outfielders' gloves. I think it's a legitimate concern -- this team that slugged .432 last year is slugging just .394 overall this year. 

Lastly, one has to wonder whether this isn't just some bad luck coming around. So many times over the past few years, the Cougs were able to come back by nickel-and-diming the opposition to death. Infield hits, errors ... you name it, the Cougs took advantage of it. This year, it just seems like it's not happening with as great of frequency. It could be the bats, and it could be some natural regression. We just don't know.

Can the Cougs get this back on track? If so, they better get a move on. It's going to be too late before too long.

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