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Gonzaga University Athletics

Cougs, Zags get ready for conference play

Gonzaga and Washington State both open the conference portions of their college baseball schedules this week, hoping to build on the midseason momentum they have established.

GU (14-5) will close out a nine-game homestand against Utah at noon today and head to the Bay Area, where it will open West Coast Conference play against the University of San Francisco at 3 p.m. Friday.

WSU (8-11), which is coming off a three-game home sweep of South Dakota State last weekend, travels to Berkeley, Calif., to kick off Pacific-10 Conference play against California at 2:30 p.m. the same day.

“Winning a three-game series is always nice, no matter when you do it,” Cougars coach Donnie Marbut said. “I would like to think it gives us some momentum heading down to California, but you never know.”

Marbut does not feel his team has played up to his preseason expectations this spring.

“We’re not where I thought we would be, but we’re close,” he said. “Obviously, we’ve played a really, really tough schedule. But that having been said, we’ve still lost some tight games we thought we should have won.”

The Cougars are getting another splendid season out of senior right-handed pitcher Matt Way (2-2), who has struck out 36 batters in 33 innings and ranks No. 2 in the Pac-10 with an earned-run average of 1.09. Senior Greg Lagreid leads the team in hitting with a .356 average that includes two doubles, a home run and 17 RBIs.

Marbut expects this year’s conference race to be another highly competitive affair, with third-ranked Arizona State (17-3) looking like the favorite after opening Pac-10 play last week by sweeping a three-game series from Arizona.

“I wouldn’t have thought that at the beginning of the year, but (the Sun Devils) have been playing really well, and that sweep over Arizona was impressive,” Marbut said.

Despite its ragged 7-13 start, Marbut still expects UCLA to figure into the title chase, along with California (12-8), Stanford (4-10) and Oregon State (13-5).

“The Pac-10 might not be getting the national recognition it usually gets, but it’s still a really, really tough league,” Marbut said. “We’ve got nine straight weekends of it coming up, and it’s not like you can look at any team in the league and go, ‘I can’t wait to play these guys.’ ”

Gonzaga faces a similar situation in the WCC, where 17th-ranked Pepperdine (16-6) and San Diego (15-10) are favored in a title chase that could easily involve the Bulldogs and Santa Clara (10-7).

“Pepperdine and San Diego are the teams with the best pitching, as usual,” GU coach Mark Machtolf said. “But the way things are shaping up, it looks like every team in the league has a chance to be right there in the mix. Week in and week out, it’s just going to be a crapshoot.”

The Bulldogs, who had won eight straight before Tuesday’s home loss to Utah, have fared well against one of the toughest non-conference schedules in school history, leaving Machtolf with few gripes.

“Our offense has been a little bit erratic,” he said, “but the pitching has really been solid.”

Freshman lefty Ryan Carpenter (3-1) leads GU’s pitching staff with 35 strikeouts and a 2.61 ERA. Senior Matt Fields (2-1) boasts an ERA of 2.90 and junior Steve Ames (5-0) has posted an ERA of 3.77.

Those three have allowed Machtolf to move sophomore Cody Martin (1-1), who was used as a starter throughout the non-conference portion of the Bulldogs’ schedule, back into the bullpen, where he will serve as the team’s closer.

The Zags’ offense is led by Tyson Van Winkle, who is hitting .361 with two homers, 11 doubles and 22 RBIs.

Quick pitches

Community Colleges of Spokane (9-2) opens NWAACC play Thursday when it travels to Wenatchee to take on Wenatchee Valley College (5-7) in a 1 p.m. doubleheader. The Sasquatch return home Sunday to entertain Treasure Valley Community College (9-9) in another conference doubleheader that starts at 1 p.m. at Spokane Falls Community College. … Whitworth (4-15, 2-11 Northwest Conference) is batting just .274 as a team and has been outscored by a combined total of 177-99, but the Pirates have played only two home games so far this spring. … Arizona State (No. 3) and Pepperdine are the only two teams from the perennially tough Pac-10 and West Coast Conference ranked in the top 25 of this week’s Baseball America poll.

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