With Washington State in position to win a baseball championship this weekend, perhaps no one will notice that the Cougars are two games under .500.
Not that Steve Farrington is hoping to hide the fact. Indeed, he’s curiously proud of it.
The Pac-10 North may have turned into the A.L. West when we weren’t looking, but Farrington is convinced baseball hereabouts isn’t headed south, no matter what the records say. He’s the man at the tiller, so naturally that’s his story and he’s sticking to it.
But the future is more than a hobby to Steve Farrington, quite possibly because of the three new coaches in the North Pac this season he’s the only one who had to replace a certified legend. He knows he’s not going to out-idiom, out-anecdote and certainly not outlast Bobo Brayton, but that’s not the mandate anyway.
Retooling a legacy which, frankly, had slipped a little of late is.
“I’m not so much worried about wins and losses, but development,” insisted Farrington, sounding as much like a minor-league manager as a major college coach.
Of course, this weekend Farrington and the Cougars are somewhat less consumed by development. They need a split of four games with Oregon State to clinch WSU’s first Pac-10 North title since 1991. That distinction used to carry the weight of an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but the Pac-10 is down to one of those now. The reward for WSU would be a best-of-three date with the South champion, which almost certainly will be USC.
As it happens, that would suit Farrington fine.
USC is where the Cougars opened their season, absorbing an 8-0 pasting that led to a 2-8 start.
“It won’t be 8-0 the next time - if there is a next time,” Farrington vowed.
“What we want to do is represent the Northwest on a national level, and the biggest step we can take right now is to win the conference and play USC a great best-of-three series - let those people down south know that we can play.”
In the Pac’s sporadic playoffs between North and South champs over the years, a team from the tundra hasn’t won since WSU beat USC in 1956. And at 25-27, these aren’t the ‘56 Cougs.
But records are relative and Farrington sculpted the schedule in such a way that artistic success in the win column was almost out of the question. Twenty-four of WSU’s first 25 games were on the road, and once home the opposition was Division I all the way with the exception of rival Lewis-Clark State. No Centrals, no Eastern Oregons. This has been pretty much a league-wide trend - and probably why only Gonzaga and Oregon State are better than .500.
“Last year, everybody in our league was 35-25 or so,” he said, “but if you’ve got 15 penalty points against your schedule in the (NCAA) power rating, it doesn’t matter if you’re 35-25. I’m proud that the league has played a better schedule and you’re seeing it in the level of play.”
To Farrington, it’s about raising standards - and preparation.
“The reason we’re competitive now,” he said, “is because of what we did then.”
Besides, victory can be measured individually, too, and Wazzu has had its share of successes.
Like Kyle Kawabata, a scuffler who always seems to be pitching from behind in the count or out of delicate situations. But he’s 10-2 - just the third 10-game winner WSU has had in 15 years. The other two, John Olerud and Aaron Sele, are on ‘scholarship’ in the major leagues.
Or Kyle Poffenroth. A freshman walk-on, he’s second in innings pitched and ERA, has flirted with nohitters and saved games in relief.
Or Mike Wetmore, a .244 hitter at shortstop who Farrington has enough faith in to be the leadoff man. Or Rob Ryan, the center fielder from Spokane who has found enough pop in his bat to match slugger Mike Kinkade RBI for RBI in league games. Or the committee Farrington rotates deep in the order - including Jim Horner, the North’s player of the week who hit .625 out of the ninehole last weekend.
Pick anybody, because one and all have had to adjust to Farrington’s style - from weightlifting at 6 a.m. to a more aggressive mien on the basepaths and the mound. An example? Farrington’s love of the fastball.
“We’re going to challenge people a lot more and that’s an issue we’re still dealing with,” he said. “It’s a philosophy. I don’t want to fool anybody. I know the aluminum bat made people afraid to throw the fastball, but it’s my feeling that the fastball can be more than one pitch if you locate it skillfully and that the curveball gives the guy a chance to swing the bat because it slows the ball down.
“Speed in this game, both on the mound and on the bases, will separate the men from the boys.
“The adjustments, all of them, haven’t been easy. Some guys learn quickly, some take a thousand repetitions. But as soon as the brain figures out that this is the way we’re doing things, it’s easier for them to see the benefits.”
Like playing for a championship. Let the record show that.