Cougar baseball on the rise

Green

The Washington State University baseball team’s 2020 season ended far short of completion, so it’s unfair for anyone to glean too much from the 16 games WSU played.

But the numbers from the abbreviated campaign are final regardless, and the Cougars’ 9-7 record — although incomplete — gives the program and second-year coach Brian Green confidence heading into the 2021 season. Washington State hadn’t finished a season above .500 since 2015, hadn’t won on opening day since 2011 and hadn’t swept a four-game series since 2017, but accomplished it all this past year.

With a top-30-ranked recruiting class already in Pullman, a highly regarded crop of junior college transfers arriving after the season, an All-American on the roster and a brand-new, all-inclusive clubhouse to show off to recruits, things should get much better, and soon, for the Cougars.

That’s Green’s plan, anyway.

But the offseason has been challenging for him and the Cougars and, while it’s almost finally game day, the next several weeks won’t be much easier. WSU didn’t have its full team “assembled together” until January, Green said, battled snow throughout its final week of preseason practice and plays its first 24 games on the road.

However, it’s hard to dim Green’s enthusiasm. It’s baseball season.

“Our guys have done such a good job. We are so pumped to get on the road,” Green said. “We just feel so good about where we are right now.”

The Cougars likely will start many familiar faces when they take the field at 2 p.m. today at UC Davis, chief among them junior first baseman Kyle Manzardo. The Coeur d’Alene native hit .435 and led the Pac-12 Conference with 27 hits a year ago — good enough to earn third-team All-America honors from Collegiate Baseball Newspaper — and enters this year with a 17-game hitting streak that dates back to the final game of 2019. He’s already earning big-time ­acclaim this year, with spots on preseason third-team All-America lists published by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.

Recognition like that isn’t common for WSU baseball players, but Green said his star is handling it like the professional he hopes to become.

“He’s just really committed to being great. He doesn’t care about the accolades,” Green said. “He’s a total pro and his work habits are professional.”

Manzardo will be joined by the likes of shortstop Kodie Kolden, third baseman Jack Smith and corner outfielders Justin VanDeBrake and Collin Montez, all of whom combined with Manzardo to provide much of the Cougs’ offensive production last season. They’ll have help from graduate transfer Tristan Peterson, who was a first-team All-American in 2019 when he played for Green at New Mexico State.

Green also expects a few freshmen to compete for regular playing time and possibly starting roles, noting the depth charts at second base, center field and catcher are unsettled heading into opening day. Infielder Kyle Russell and outfielder Keith Jones II were tabbed top-500 recruits by Perfect Game.

The Cougars also return substantial arm talent, led by junior Zane Mills. The 6-foot-4 right-hander posted a 1.44 ERA and struck out 11.5 batters per nine innings in finishing 3-0 last season. Sophomore left-hander Ethan Ross and junior righty Brandon White also are back after earning regular appearances in the starting rotation last year.

But around 10 or 12 guys will be regulars on the mound, Green said, making the pitching staff WSU’s deepest and best asset right now.

“We like our pitching. It’s old and we hope to keep it that way,” Green said. “And they’re healthy. Everybody is healthy so far.”

But perhaps the area of WSU baseball that gives Green the most excitement is the program’s new clubhouse, coined Project: BTO (Back to Omaha) — a $10 million renovation WSU hopes gets the Cougars get back to the NCAA tournament and College World Series.

The recently completed facility features a locker room, weight-and-cardio room, meeting room, nutrition center, athletic training room, academic spaces, coaches’ offices and, moreover, provides a hub for the Cougars’ players and coaches. It already has benefited this year’s team, Green said, and will increase Washington State’s profile and prestige when potential new players visit campus.

“The facility’s changed everything,” Green said. “It brings us into a totally different arena of recruiting.”

With loads of returning players who have talent and experience, a slew of capable freshmen and the coveted recruiting resources a successful baseball program desires, Green thinks the pieces are sliding into place to build a competitive program on the Palouse.

“We can win here,” he said. “We’ve just got to continue to do a great job (with recruiting) and be committed to developing and teaching as coaches.”

Madison Guernsey may be reached at mguernsey@lmtribune.com, (208) 848-2268 or on Twitter @MD_Guernsey.

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