Dawn of a new era for WSU baseball

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PULLMAN — Brian Green knows a thing or two about building a baseball program. His resume of four consecutive seasons of 34 or more wins at New Mexico State speaks to that.

But before any thoughts of home runs, winning seasons and potential Gatorade showers, Washington State’s new coach stressed the importance of building, and acknowledging, a program’s culture.

Part of that entails reaching out and meeting the greats of yesteryear, like former Cougar Major Leaguers John Olerud, Scott Hatteberg or Tom Niedenfuer, who played for legendary WSU coach Bobo Brayton.

“I’ve had some rough mornings after hanging out with those guys the night prior,” Green said with a smile during his opening news conference. “No, it’s been great. I’ve had a chance to sit down with John Olerud, and congrats to him: elected into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame (on Feb. 4).

“I’ve spent a lot of time with Tom (Niedenfuer). He has spoken to the team already and addressed them; Scott Hatteberg has spoken to the team and he gave an awesome message.”

With words of wisdom from the former pros fresh on their minds, the Cougars will begin the 2020 season — Green’s first in crimson and gray — at 6 p.m. today at Cal State Bakersfield.

Washington State is looking to rebuild after finishing last with a 3-26-1 mark in the Pac-12 last season (11-42-1 overall). WSU hasn’t had a winning season since it went 29-27 in 2015.

On top of that, the Cougars lost three of their top five hitters from last year and don’t return a hitter with a better than .300 batting average or a pitcher with a sub-5.00 ERA.

But that doesn’t mean Green doesn’t have some weapons at his disposal.

Junior outfielder Collin Montez (.286 average, four homers) and sophomore first baseman Kyle Manzardo (.272 average, 31 RBI) return as mainstays in the lineup.

On the mound, ace A.J. Block went 0-8 with a 6.06 ERA, but showed enough to get drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 17th round of the the MLB draft.

Green said having the senior left-hander return for the 2020 season was huge.

“That was a massive decision,” Green said. “... The A.J. Block decision, I take a lot of responsibility in that I have to do a good job for him. He turned down some money, he turned down a professional opportunity. ... We want to see him go out and get some wins.”

Sophomore Brandon White (2-8, 6.52) also returns as a starter, but after that it’s not as clear. Relievers Hayden Rosenkrantz and Zane Mills could see time in the rotation early in the season.

“It will just be all hands on deck,” Green said. “We don’t have a lot of depth on the mound, but we do have a lot of quality in terms of strikes.

“We’re really going to be fighting and competing for confidence early on.”

In the field, it will be a mix of newcomers and veterans behind Montez and Manzardo, a Lake City grad from Coeur d’Alene.

Green said third baseman Jack Smith has been WSU’s “most consistent” hitter this spring. Filling out the infield will be Manzardo’s longtime teammate, Kodie Kolden, and Garrett Gouldsmith at second base and shortstop. Both saw a significant number of at-bats a year ago.

In the outfield, newcomer Justin Van De Brake is one to watch. The Tacoma Community College transfer was named an American Baseball Coaches Association first-team All-American last season.

“Van De Brake is a guy from Tacoma who has really come out of nowhere,” Green said. “We have high expectations for him.”

The Cougars will spend their first three weeks on the road with series at Bakersfield, Cal State Northridge, Hawaii and a series in Arizona against Rutgers.

WSU’s first home series begins March 5 against Niagara, a team from Lewiston, N.Y.

“We’ll use the first three weeks to play as many guys as we can from a position-player standpoint,” Green said. “We want to use the opportunities to see where we’re going because when you get to Weeks 5 and 6, hopefully you have something solidified.”

Stephan Wiebe can be reached at swiebe@dnews.com, by phone at (208) 883-4624 and on Twitter at @StephanSports.

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