The WSU baseball team opened up its season by traveling to Starkville, Miss., this past weekend, and the Cougars returned with a series loss after dropping two of three to Mississippi State. While hardly a soft landing, it was a bit of a missed opportunity for the Cougs as they look to get back in the NCAA tournament -- the Bulldogs already are a fringe top 25 team in the ultra-competitive SEC.
Still, there were plenty of positives to take away from the trio of games, of which I was able to watch all of the third and about half of each of the first two.
We know that last year's problems were primarily traced to run prevention, so let's go ahead and start there.
First, the defense appears to be much improved. Small sample size and all that, but the team made just a pair of errors in the three-game set, and only one of them came in a fielding chance. Beyond that, the outfield of Jason Monda, Kyle Johnson and Derek Jones flashed excellent range in tracking down a number of balls that hung up in the gap -- there was a stiff wind blowing in for most of the weekend -- and the infield made a number of stellar plays of the non-routine variety.
Of particular note were a pair of plays by Patrick Claussen, who is holding down the full time job at third base for the first time. In extra innings in the second game, Claussen picked one ball cleanly to his left, then two batters later made a sliding backhand play to his right, throwing out the runners each time. Tommy Richards also made some nice plays at second.
The defense wasn't flawless. In fact, it was a pair of botched defensive plays in the rubber match that allowed MSU to come back from two-runs down in the eighth: Monda attempted an ill-advised dive for a liner after moving over to centerfield, and catcher Colin Slaybaugh later compounded the problem by attempting a snap throw to first that ended up in right field.
However, those are mental errors that are correctable. On the whole, the defense doesn't look -- for now -- to be the issue it was a year ago.
The pitching was a bit more of a mixed bag.
Sophomore J.D. Leckenby, who takes over for Adam Conley on Friday nights, didn't pitch particularly well in his first start for the Cougs. He throws a wicked sinker in the low 90s, but it doesn't do much good when it's elevated in the zone, which it was throughout most of his outing. As such, he was pounded pretty good, giving up five runs on eight hits in just four innings. For context, he gave up just nine runs in more than 27 innings of relief last year. Again, not worried unless I see a trend -- I still have incredibly high hopes.
Junior transfer Kyle Swannack started on Saturday, and having never seen him before, my impression was "meh." There was no radar gun on the screen, but my impression was that he wasn't throwing real hard and relied on changing speeds and pounding the strike zone to induce weak contact. He gave up two runs on five hits in 4 2/3 innings. He certainly wasn't overwhelming, but there's potential there if the control develops a little bit as the season moves along.
The most exciting development of the weekend was the performance of freshman Tanner Chleborad. A 25th round pick of the Seattle Mariners last June, the lanky righty (6-foot-5/189 pounds) flashed a lively fastball and used a nice curve to freeze a trio of hitters for strikeouts. He threw five innings of one-run ball, and that one run only scored after a runner came around from first on a wild pitch and passed ball. (Both should have been passed balls, really. Runs like that are why the concept of "earned runs" was invented.) He could have gone deeper than five, but was pulled after 74 pitches. Exciting stuff.
The bullpen was hit and miss. New closer Anthony Drobnick was excellent for 3 1/3 innings in game two, keeping the Cougs in the extra inning game. The control was a little off, but the bottom line is that he shut out the Bulldogs for the entirety of his appearance. So far so good. Ty Jackson, Kellen Camus and Scott Simon also were excellent. Not so good? Bryce Jackson, Spencer Jackson and Richie Ochoa. Marbut used a lot of arms this weekend, and while depth is important, the bullpen will get shorter as the starters are able to work deeper.
Now ... the offense. Put simply, it was pretty much a disaster. As a team, the Cougs hit just .209/.265/.245 (average/on-base percentage/slugging). No home runs, just four extra base hits and 38 strikeouts. In fact, it's probably a minor miracle that WSU was actually in a strong position to win the series -- it's a testament to the way they were able to grind some innings with flares, dribblers, sacrifices and stolen bases.
Monda led the way at .385/.429/.462, and Richards rode a strong doubleheader to a .364/.462/.455 line. However, Derek Jones, Taylor Ard, Claussen and Slaybaugh each hit under .200 in three starts. Jones and Ard are the team's two best hitters; those guys will try to get untracked the next two weeks against some weaker competition.
It wasn't an ideal start, but it wasn't disastrous, either. If the Cougs are serious about getting back into the NCAA tournament, a good place to start is winning a bunch of the next seven games at home against Nebraska Omaha and Northern Colorado.