Washington State University’s baseball program is off to a tremendous start. The Cougars, who finished 17-29 last year, have won 10 of their first 15 games to begin 2017. WSU’s two-thirds winning percentage is fourth-best in the Pac-12, one of the nation’s most competitive baseball conferences.
What makes Washington State’s resurgence even Sweeter is that our guys seem to be leading the charge. Walla Walla-bound 3B Shane Matheny’s .432 batting average (19-for-44) is tops on the team. Right behind him at .408 is another Sweet-to-be, OF J.J. Hancock (20-for-49). Across the young season, the pair of Matheny and Hancock has emerged as elite hitters in an elite division.
Joining those two on the Sweets’ roster this summer is INF Danny Sinatro, who has received limited playing time as a freshman. However, Sinatro is also to be taken seriously. He was drafted in the 40th round by the Cleveland Indians last summer.
All three of these guys are Washington natives and all three are excited to spend their summer so close to home. We look forward to having this talented trio in the mix this summer. It is our pleasure to introduce Matheny, Hancock, and Sinatro as the newest citizens of #SweetsCountry.
Let’s start with Matheny. Shane is a junior and he’s been the starting third baseman at Washington State since his freshman year. In fact, Matheny has already played in 119 collegiate games, which makes him one of the few but essential veteran voices in the Sweets’ clubhouse.
A native of Bermerton, WA and Olympic HS, Matheny has been one of the top players in the Pac-12 this year. Thus far, Matheny leads the Cougars in extra-base hits (11), total bases (35), slugging (.795), and on-base percentage (.528). His eight doubles and two home runs are also tied for the team lead. In addition to his power, Matheny has proven to be a complete hitter. Across 44 at-bats, he’s walked eight times and struck out only four.
"Shane is a complete player that will contribute both defensively and offensively. With returning players like WCL All-Star Nick Nyquist and the addition of Shane Matheny, the Sweets could have two of the three or four best hitters in the league," said coach Frank Mutz.
“I view myself as an all-around player,” Matheny said. “I feel I can hit for power and average and execute all the skills but I think the thing that sets me apart is my defense. Defense is something I take great pride in and work at constantly.”
Matheny committed exactly zero errors in 80 chances during his sophomore season.
"Shane will most likely hit 2nd or 3rd in our lineup this summer," said Mutz. "He's a complete player and his WSU coach told me Shane will definitely play at the next level and definitely help us win."
As one of the few upperclassmen on this Sweets team, Matheny is eager to help the young guys grow.
“I think the big thing freshmen can’t possibly get that older guys can is experience,” he said. “Nothing can do as much for a player as having those in-game at-bats, throwing those tough pitches and being in the real situations. D1 baseball is a grind and having the experience of playing games and being in those situations gives me the opportunity to help them along the way.”
Though Matheny is no stranger to summer collegiate baseball—he has spent time in the New England Collegiate Baseball League, among other places—he is pumped for the unique opportunity to return to Washington this summer.
“I loved my time out on the east coast, there's some great baseball to be played out there but I'm excited to be closer to home and playing with some of my teammates from school ball,” said Matheny. “I was asked if I wanted to play in Walla Walla with some of my close friends on the team and I couldn't be more excited for it!”
Making the jump from the Cougars to the Sweets alongside Matheny is another junior, OF J.J. Hancock. Hailing from Kennewick, WA and Kennewick HS, Hancock has been equally impressive during the college season. A full-time starter for the first time, Hancock has earned his place in the Cougars’ lineup. He’s batting .408 and leading the team in hits with 20.
"J.J. will bring leadership and stability to the middle of our lineup," said Mutz. "We need veteran players to be successful and J.J.'s Pac-12 experience will be needed."
Hancock plays the game with a ton of energy.
“I’m really competitive and I like to play hard,” he said. “I think of myself as how Bryce Harper plays. He’s my idol so I like to say I compete and run around like him.”
Over the years, Hancock has learned to harness his rambunctious playing style. As a junior, he realizes there are times to be fiery and times to ease back.
“In my years of college baseball, the best thing I learned was how to relax and slow the game down,” he said. “My mindset is to not do too much because I’ve already proved that I’m a good player. Now I just have to help the team get a W any way that I can.”
While Hancock caught and played outfield throughout high school and into college, his college coaches moved him to the outfield full-time in 2017. Hancock says the transition has helped his mental maturity.
“I got hurt last year and it kind of hurt my chances of catching, so the coaching staff made me into an outfielder,” he said. “The biggest difference is that being in the outfield keeps me relaxed and not thinking about too much stuff, it allows me to just go out and help my team and have fun doing it.”
However, Mutz has indicated he's comfortable using Hancock behind the plate if necessary.
"J.J. will most likely play one of our corner outfield positions and spell us behind the plate on occasion," he said.
Like Matheny, Hancock is well-traveled when it comes to summer collegiate leagues. He spent the summer after his freshman season with the Mat-Su Miners in the Alaska Baseball League. Last summer, he played in Reading, CA. This year though, Hancock is looking forward to returning home.
“My closest friends have played for the Sweets,” Hancock said. “I thought it would be awesome living so close to home and playing for a great organization with great competition.”
Rounding out the WSU trio is INF Danny Sinatro, a 40th round draft choice of the Cleveland Indians out of Skyline HS in Sammamish, WA last summer. As a senior, Sinatro captained Skyline as the school captured the 4A state title. He earned a spot on the all-state team. What’s more, Sinatro also excelled on the gridiron. He was an all-state defensive back and helped lead Skyline to the state title game his senior year in football as well as baseball.
Still, baseball was Sinatro’s primary passion. The game runs in his genes, he says.
“What sets me apart from other players has really been my family and their roles in my life. I have two older brothers who both went on to play college baseball, along with my dad who played and coached in the Major Leagues, and of course my mom who has supported me every step of the way; who by the way was one heck of an athlete too!” said Sinatro.
As a freshman, Sinatro’s playing time at WSU has been limited thus far. He recorded his first collegiate base hit last Saturday against Utah Valley. As a Cougar, Sinatro has made one start and received six at-bats on the young season.
"Danny will hopefully hit in the top of our lineup," said Mutz. "Our goal is to create offense and his speed is the best way to accomplish that."
Sinatro is determined to work hard and to continue improving. He’s seized the college transition and worked hard to put himself in a position to be successful.
“Going into my freshman year here at WSU I knew that there was some work to do in the off season to turn this program around,” he said. “Being a freshman, my main objective was to simply get better every day and be the best I could possibly be for my teammates and coaches. Through this process I pushed myself to work hard, establish chemistry with my new teammates, and to simply have fun doing it.”
Clearly, Sinatro can play. Major League teams don’t generally draft players who can’t. Still, despite having the opportunity to jump right into pro ball, Sinatro felt that college was better choice for him.
“Being drafted was a dream come true,” he said. “After receiving a phone call, I was very excited and honored to be selected but knew that a college education was very important to me and my future. My general thought process revolved around the idea that heading to college at this point of my life would prove to be a far different experience than heading to college years down the road after my baseball career. So I thought I would kill two birds with one stone by heading to college now and work hard and if all goes well hopefully improve my draft stock and go through the process again.”
Mutz thinks that Sinatro has what it takes to succeed at the next level.
"I believe Danny will continue to develop every aspect of his game along with the conditioning and strength necessary to succeed at the next level," said Mutz. "He is a plus runner with plus defensive skills and the next three years at WSU will definitely prepare him."
Sinatro, along with Matheny and Hancock is a talented and wise young man. We are fortunate and excited to have these three join our club this summer.
by Ben Farber