PULLMAN, Wash.–Roy Hobbs is alive and well and playing for Washington State.
On second thought, comparing Jared Prince to Hobbs is unfair to Prince. After all, Prince is starring at the plate, on the mound and in right field, and Hobbs could no longer pitch by the time Robert Redford played the fictional baseball star in “The Natural.”
Prince, the feature attraction of Washington State’s impressive freshman class, was putting together the greatest combined season of hitting, pitching and fielding seen in these parts since Washington State first baseman/lefthander John Olerud was Baseball America’s College Player of the Year in 1988.
Prince was hitting .449-1-26 with 11 doubles in 22 games while going 3-0, 0.00 with 14 strikeouts and no walks in 18 innings on the mound. In the field, he had no errors in 41 chances, and he made a spectacular diving catch to preserve a perfect game.
Alas, the perfect game ended in a two-hitter, making the game and Prince similar in that they’re only close to being perfect.
“I’ve never seen a true freshman do anything like he’s doing,” Washington State coach Donnie Marbut said.
“I’ve really fallen in love with baseball,” Prince said.
Ain’t love grand? Fickle, too. After all, Prince never would have come to Washington State, never mind played college baseball, if he had been successful in his quest to land a football scholarship at arch-rival Washington or another big-time college football program.
“I’m glad I came here,” Prince said. “Right now, I’m a baseball player. Things could change.”
Prince was a standout football quarterback, basketball guard and forward, and baseball pitcher and infielder at North Kitsap High in Poulsbo, Wash. He set successive school batting records of .512, .523 and .525, but Marbut said he was far more attracted to Prince’s 90-plus mph fastball than his hitting.
“I never in a million years thought he could hit,” Marbut admitted.
“I really thought I was going to hit,” Prince said in his soft-spoken, confident manner. “But in, like, our first batting practice last fall, coach Marbut was pitching to me, and he yelled to me, ‘We brought you here to pitch. If you don’t start hitting, we’re not going to let you hit.’ “
Long hours in the batting cage with recruiting coordinator and hitting coach Travis Jewett straightened out Prince’s hitting mechanics. The 6-foot-3, 198-pound Prince figures to develop more power as he continues to learn about his swing, as last summer was the first time he dedicated himself full-time to baseball.
“His work ethic is absolutely incredible,” Marbut said. “He’s turned himself into a hitter.”
“I’m just trying to get better each day and each week, improve on the positives and learn from my mistakes,” Prince said.
Marbut would have made a huge mistake if he had stopped his diligent pursuit of Prince, whose football leanings scared off many recruiters. Washington eventually offered him a baseball scholarship and a chance to walk-on in football, but Marbut won him over.
“He got me because of how hard he works,” Prince said. “You can see it with the kind of talent he’s bringing in; how hard he works, and how hard the coaching staff works.”
The Cougars start only one senior on a team loaded with freshmen and first-year transfers, but Washington State entered Pacific-10 Conference play with an 18-6 record. Marbut was the first to admit he arranged a soft non-conference schedule for his young squad, but the Cougars obviously were much improved from the 2005 team that went 21-37 (including a humbling 1-23 in the Pac-10) in Marbut’s first year at the helm.
“Our youth is our strength, but our weakness is also our youth,” said Marbut, who claims next year’s freshman class (led by two top draft prospects, shortstop Stephen Englund and pitcher Chad Arnold) looks even more promising than the current crop.
Marbut was quick to praise Jewett and pitching coach Gregg Swenson, both of whom Marbut was able to lure from Washington, and volunteer assistant Matt Dorey. The Cougars posted a mile-high ERA of 6.17 last year (8.57 in the Pac-10), but the staff ERA was 3.32 entering Pac-10 play this spring.
“We’ve got a ways to go, but the guys the coaching staff have brought in are a lot more talented,” said senior left fielder Jay Miller, whose .423 average ranked second on the team to Prince. “Each (new) class of players is a lot more dedicated to the program. It makes me glad I was around to see it start to change.”