WSU getting power surge from Jones

PULLMAN — Derek Jones isn’t acting his age — not with a baseball bat in his hands, anyway.

The way he’s swatting balls out of the park for the Washington State University baseball team this spring, you could almost mistake the 18-year-old freshman for a 21-year-old senior.

Through the Cougars’ first 31 games, the left-handed swinging outfielder had clubbed nine home runs, tops on the team and No. 6 in the Pacific-10 Conference. He was just three homers shy of the WSU freshman record with 23 games to play.

He has even exceeded coach Donnie Marbut’s expectations from a power standpoint. “I thought his average would be a little higher and his home runs a little bit down,” said the former Edmonds Community College coach. “But he’s right there.”

One of his recent home runs came in a 10-4 victory over Arizona State, then the top-ranked team in the country. He hit his first collegiate home run in the fifth game of the season against Oklahoma, currently ranked No. 9.

A year ago, Jones was starring for his Snohomish High School team, which went on to win the Class 4A state title. During a campaign in which he earned his second consecutive Herald Player of the Year award, he hit eight home runs.

This spring for the Cougars, he’s second on the team in runs batted in (25), total bases (61) and slugging percentage (.565).

“He’s doing exactly what I thought he would do,” his high school coach Kim Hammons said. “I figured he would get an opportunity to start, maybe even do some relief pitching.”

This is the kind of confidence Marbut has in Jones. He bats him in the three hole, usually reserved for the best all-around hitter on the team.

“A lot of freshmen get baptized a little bit, they get brought along slowly,” Marbut said. “Well, you don’t get brought along slowly at Washington State. If you’re good enough, we’re going to put you right in the fire. And we put him right in the fire from the get-go.”

When he started college, Jones’ goal was to make the travel squad, “maybe start a few games, make some contributions.” But he had such an impressive fall that he felt he needed to elevate his expectations.

Marbut has known for several years that Jones had the makings to be a very special player. The pair first crossed paths when Marbut coached Jones, then 13, on a select team in the Seattle area.

“I took our recruiting coordinator out to Snohomish to watch another player and I told him they have a freshman (Jones) here that we’re going to recruit one day,” said Marbut, who became the Cougars head coach in 2004. “I knew he was going to be a good player, but I wasn’t sure how good.”

Now he says the 6-foot-1, 205-pounder “has a chance to be a very, very high draft pick one day.”

As the No.3 hitter in the lineup, Jones has — as his old high school coach put it — “a target on his back.”

“And with his early success,” Hammons said, “people are going to pitch him differently. He may see some more sliders and changeups.”

What he’s also seeing is that opponents already have a good scouting report on him. “He’s got to realize that he’s the guy in the lineup that they’re already pitching around,” Marbut said. “I don’t know if there’s another freshman in our conference that people are pitching as carefully to as they are to him.”

That’s born out by the fact that he leads the Cougars in walks (16). He also has the dubious distinction of having the second-most strikeouts (30) on the team, not unusual for someone still getting used to college pitching and eager to show what he can do. “His eye is good,” his coach said, “his patience is not as good.

“He’s trying to make things happen and he knows you make things happen when you swing the bat, not just stand there. Eventually, he’s going to learn you can make things happen by not doing anything.”

Jones swung and connected big-time during a recent series against California in which he hit home runs in three consecutive games and drove in six runs, earning him Pac-10 Player of the Week honors. Though his average was hovering around .260 at the mid-point in the season, his aim is to be up around .300 by the end of the year.

Anytime the competition gets better, players of course have to make adjustments. One change Jones has made is in his mental approach. “I used to get frustrated when I made an out,” he said last week, as he sat in the Cougars’ indoor batting facility on a windy day in the Palouse. “I’d slam my helmet and it would carry over to my next at-bat or out on the field.

“I’ve learned to control that. Baseball is such a ‘feel’ sport. If your swing doesn’t feel good one day, you’ve got to adjust and clear your head for the next day.”

It’s evident that he’s working with a clear head in the outfield. He had yet to commit an error and he’d played all three outfield positions.

“He’s played a great outfield for us,” Marbut said. “He’s really instinctive. That comes from his football background (as a senior, Jones was an all-state running back and linebacker). He catches it, he hits the cutoff. He’s learning how to play guys on certain counts.”

Something else that’s new to Jones: Lifting weights three times a week in the fall. “I’d lifted before,” he said, “but never to that extent.”

“I never realized he’d get so physical,” Marbut said. “He’s really, really strong. He’s got incredible bat speed.”

Talk to us

More in Sports

FILE - Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda autographs a baseball in the Dodgertown locker-room in Vero Beach, Fla., in this Wednesday, Feb. 15, 1990, file photo. Tommy Lasorda, the fiery Hall of Fame manager who guided the Los Angeles Dodgers to two World Series titles and later became an ambassador for the sport he loved during his 71 years with the franchise, has died. He was 93. The Dodgers said Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, that he had a heart attack at his home in Fullerton, California. Resuscitation attempts were made on the way to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly before 11 p.m. Thursday.  (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
Former Cascade baseball coach remembers time with MLB legend

Bob Smithson spent time in the minor leagues playing against up-and-coming manager Tommy Lasorda.

Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Poona Ford turns away from the field as he stands at the bench late in the second half of Seattle’s playoff loss to the Los Angels Rams last Saturday at Lumen Field. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
POLL RESULTS: Seahawks’ season was not a success

Despite Seattle going 12-4, more than double the voters considered the season a failure than a success.

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) gets instruction from quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton during an NFL football game against the Las Vegas Raiders, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. The most recognizable trend in hiring NFL head coaches has been to target young, innovative offensive teachers with a track record of developing quarterbacks. (AP Photo/Peter Joneleit)
Who will become Seahawks’ next offensive coordinator?

A look at some candidates who may be able to step in for the recently ousted Brian Schottenheimer.

Washington forward Hameir Wright (13) shoots between Southern California forward Isaiah Mobley (3) and forward Evan Mobley (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
UW men lose to USC, fall to 1-10 on season

The Huskies remain winless in Pac-12 play after a 95-68 road loss to the Trojans.

Gonzaga forward Drew Timme (2) shoots while pressured by Pepperdine forward Kene Chukwuka (24) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Spokane, Wash., Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
No. 1 Gonzaga overcomes poor 1st half, rolls past Pepperdine

The Bulldogs were up just four at halftime, but cruise down the stretch to win 95-70.

Lakewood's Landen Pruitt runs the ball during the 2A State playoff game against Sequim on Friday, Nov. 15, 2018 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
WIAA announces another change to prep sports schedule

The announcement comes after new plans from the governor. Wesco is still submitting its own proposal.

United States goalie Dustin Wolf (32) makes a save on Russia's Yegor Chinakhov (21) during the third period of an IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship game in Edmonton, Alberta, Friday, Dec. 25, 2020. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)
Silvertips notebook: Wolf earns gold with U.S. at world juniors

Everett’s goalie serves as a backup, but appears in two of seven games and stops all 21 shots he faces.

Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider walks on the field during warmups before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams, Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019, in Seattle. The Seahawks have agreed to a contract extension with general manager John Schneider that will keep him tied to the franchise through the 2027 draft. The Seahawks announced Schneider’s extension on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, three days after their season ended in a 30-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC wild-card playoff game. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Seahawks agree to contract extension with Schneider

The well-regarded general manager is now tied to the team through the 2027 draft.

Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, right, talks with head coach Pete Carroll, left, following an organized team activity, Tuesday, June 4, 2019, at the team's NFL football training facility in Renton, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Seahawks part ways with offensive coordinator Schottenheimer

The team cites ‘philosophical differences’ as the reason for moving on from the 47-year-old play-caller.

Most Read