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Baseball opens up huge series with No. 1 ASU tonight

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Note: This will serve as the game thread if you want to talk about tonight's game. You can follow all the games via GameTracker, or streaming video on wsucougars.com for a nominal fee. We'll have game threads for tomorrow and Sunday, too.

Time (PDT) WSU Starter ASU Starter GameTracker
FRIDAY 5:30 p.m. RH Chad Arnold (3-1, 3.02 ERA, 1.254 WHIP, 36 K, 44 2/3 IP) RH Seth Blair (5-0, 3.12 ERA, 1.240 WHIP, 42 K, 40 1/3 IP) Here
SATURDAY 2 p.m. RH Travis Cook (0-1, 4.30 ERA, 1.568 WHIP, 6 K, 14 2/3 IP) RH Merrill Kelly (6-0, 3.52 ERA, 1.226 WHIP, 37 K, 38 1/3 IP) Here
SUNDAY Noon LH David Stilley (1-0, 0.00 ERA, 1.000 WHIP, 4 K, 7 IP) RH Jake Borup (6-0, 2.43 ERA, 0.959 WHIP, 40 K, 40 2/3 IP) Here

I have to admit -- I'm somewhat uncomfortable writing this, as I don't generally like to write about teams I haven't seen with my own two eyes. But we know that many of you want more baseball, and gosh darn it, we're determined to give it to you.

The Cougs open up a huge series with Arizona State tonight at 5:30 PDT at Bailey-Brayton Field in Pullman, and it's big for a couple of reasons. First off, ASU is the No. 1 team in the country, and that's always special. But beyond that, it represents an opportunity for the Cougs to really get their season back on track, as it seems to have strayed just a bit from where it started.

Ranked briefly earlier this year, WSU has seen a series of close losses leave them with a middling 15-10 record. We knew going into the year that this was a team built around pitching, defense and holding your breath, and since we know there's a heck of a lot of luck involved in baseball, there was always the chance this could happen. A perfect example was last weekend in Seattle, where a dropped fly ball in the bottom of the ninth was the difference between starting 2-1 in Pac-10 play and the 1-2 where they currently stand.

However, hope abounds in the form of history.

The Cougs were 12-13 after 25 games last year, and had gone just 2-8 against ranked competition. They would go on to finish the regular season by winning 19 of their final 29 games and finishing 19-8 in the Pac-10 to advance to their first NCAA Tournament in almost 20 years.

If you believe that the Cougs' current record is at least somewhat the product of luck, well, it's not a stretch to think their results could change very soon.

Of course, standing in their way this weekend is only the best team in the country. The Sun Devils are a remarkable story -- their coach was forced out in November amid an NCAA investigation, they have played this entire season without their No. 1 pitcher (a third round draft pick by the Angels) ... and they've only gone 27-1.

How have they done it? With an offense that has been more or less ridiculous without the benefit of putting a pile of balls over the fence. They lead the Pac-10 in total bases, but are just third in homers. They are, however, first in both doubles and triples. When you combine that with being first in on-base percentage -- by a country mile -- and first in stolen bases ... well, it's not hard to see why they lead the league in runs scored.

The guys who do the most damage are the top two guys in the order: Left fielder Drew Maggi and second baseman Zack McPhee. McPhee is having himself an OK season, what with his .429 batting average, .525 on-base percentage and .755 slugging percentage. Oh, and he also has 11 steals in 12 attempts. Those numbers are reminiscent of another guy in college baseball last year who is looking pretty good.

It's not like you can just focus on shutting those two down, though -- of the nine regulars for the Sun Devils, only two have on-base percentages under .400. And they're at .388 and .378. Basically, ASU wants to put a crapload of guys on base and pressure the pitcher by running as much as possible.

Offensively, they essentially are what the Cougs aspire to be.

The starting rotation isn't filled with future first round picks, but they do strike out their fair share of guys and walk very few -- as a trio, Seth Blair, Merrill Kelly and Jake Borup are running 9.0 K/9 and a 3.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Then, when it's time to lockdown the game, a series of strikeout specialists come to the rescue, led by closer Jordan Swagerty with his eight saves, 0.93 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 19.1 innings.

No doubt, it's a tall order for the Cougs this weekend. But if they can perhaps contain Maggi and McPhee, contain the Devils' running game -- which the Cougs have done very well this year (starting catcher Jay Ponciano has thrown out 52.3 percent of would-be stealers) -- and scratch out some runs, maybe they can take two of three.

Pitching may prove to be the key. This is the biggest challenge of the year for "Friday night guy" Chad Arnold, who has been up to the task this year. The wildcard might just be David Stilley, who flashed promise last year but has only made two starts this season -- controlled starts of less than four innings against Seattle U on Feb. 21 and Washington on April 3. I don't know the story, but I assume he's been injured. Can he give the Cougs five on Sunday? That might be the difference between getting zero, one or even two wins.

At the very least, the fact that it's currently 44 degrees and dropping can't hurt when you're hosting a team from Arizona. Every little bit helps.