You can’t go wrong rooting for the Cougars at today’s Cougar Diamond Classic at 6:30 p.m. at Gesa Stadium.
The only question is, which Cougars will you be pulling for: Washington State’s crimson-and-grey variety or the Brigham Young version dressed in blue and white?
WSU baseball coach Donnie Marbut, whose team has made the trip from Pullman to Pasco for the last four seasons, hopes it will be the former.
“I’d rather see 5,000 fans in crimson and grey. We don’t need to give the blue Cougars any advantage,” Marbut quipped.
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A strong contingent of BYU fans is expected thanks to a healthy number of local followers in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but Marbut is counting on the Mid-Columbia’s even healthier interest in WSU’s athletic success.
“Not to be disrespectful to any other area, but it’s hard to believe there’s a stronger (WSU) Cougar area than the Tri-Cities,” Marbut said. “There’s just a loyalty there that’s unmatched. We get more of a reaction from that area than any other. I love the people and the area. It’s just a great place to be a part of.”
So much so that he considers it home in more ways than one, according to Matt Almond, the General Manager of Washington State’s IMG Network.
“We consider this an offsite home game, as coach Marbut loves the Tri-Cities and literally takes one of the home games and brings it to this market,” Almond wrote in an email.
Three WSU players — pitcher Bryce Jackson, first baseman Matt Mendenhall and outfielder Trek Stemp — hail from Kennewick, where their contributions only deepened the rich history of prep baseball in Tri-Cities.
Trek Stemp, an infielder out of Kennewick High School, was named the Washington State Baseball Coaches Association Class 3A player of the year in 2012. But he embraced the competitive challenge of Division I baseball after signing with the Cougars.
The 5-foot-10 sophomore has been a two-year starter for WSU and currently ranks among the top offensive players on the team. Stemp is hitting .271 in 27 games with 15 runs (third on the team), 29 hits (tied for fourth) and six doubles (third). His biggest contribution, however, might be on defense, where he is errorless in 25 starts in center field.
“I’m kind of struggling at the plate, but if I’m a lockdown center fielder I know they’ll find a place for me,” Stemp said. “ I want (opponents) to think they can’t hit the ball in the air to the WSU center fielder.”
Mendenhall, a former three-sport star at Southridge, is a regular starter at first base, where he is hitting .245 with six runs and seven RBIs in 16 starts. The 6-2 sophomore also leads the team with 168 putouts and boasts a .989 fielding percentage.
“Over the summer I really worked on my footwork at first base, and now I feel a lot more comfortable,” said Mendenhall, a high school third baseman. “It’s basically backward. You have to turn the other way when turning double plays.”
Both Mendenhall and Stemp will start today, but Jackson — a Southridge graduate — is still recovering from shoulder surgery for a partial labrum tear that will keep him out for the season.
Marbut admits it’s nice to give hometown kids a chance to start in front of family and friends but said it’s not always possible. “We’ve got to play to win. It’s nice to make a concession sometimes, but this is a big-boy game,” he said.
Fortunately, Mendenhall and Stemp have been steady contributors for WSU and make that decision easy.
Marbut, now in his 10th year as WSU head coach, expects to have his hands full against BYU, a team that has lost 13 of its last 18 games.
BYU (12-21, 4-8 West Coast Conference) is led by outfielders Kelton Caldwell (.277, 5 home runs, 29 RBIs, 18 runs) and Brennan Lund (.333, 23 runs, 8 stolen bases) and third baseman Dillon Robinson (.430, 15 runs, 17 RBIs).
“They can really swing the bat,” Marbut said.
WSU (15-13, 6-3 Pac-12) has some players — some of whom will visit the Pediatric Unit at Kadlec Medical Center in Richland this morning on a feel-good mission — who can make life tough on opposing pitchers as well.
Outfielder Yale Rosen (.396, 10 doubles, three home runs, 19 RBIs, .624 slugging percentage) was named the Pac-12 offensive player of the week Monday, and third baseman Nick Tanielu (.324, 19 runs, 16 RBIs) has been solid at the plate.
In 2011, the Cougar Diamond Classic drew 3,714 fans to Gesa Stadium for WSU’s 4-2 loss to Washington. In 2012, the Cougs topped the University of Portland 4-2 in front of an estimated 2,500 fans.
WSU went 1-3 in last season’s four-game set that brought over 8,000 fans — an average of over 2,000 per game — to Pasco. Those figures are still strong compared to most home games in Pullman, which might draw between 600-800 fans, but Almond is hoping this year might bring the attendance back up.
“The first year of the event was far and away the best,” Almond wrote. “Unfortunately, each year since, we have seen a steady decline in both corporate sponsorship support and ticket sales.”
Tickets are still available at Gesa Stadium (544-8789). Upper reserved is $15, lower reserved is $10 and general admission is $5. The game will also feature live music, a free autograph session and a post-game fireworks display as well as appearances by WSU mascot Butch T. Cougar and Dusty, the Tri-City Dust Devils’ mascot.