Blanchette: Cougars, Bulldogs baseball models of resiliency
The publicity photo you never see is the one snapped in April with the baseball diamonds at either Gonzaga or Washington State freshly blanketed in white after an out-of-left-field snowstorm.
As a recruiting come-on, it’s more of a chase-away. A bat rack is no place for a scoop shovel.
But it’s the damnedest thing – what doesn’t necessarily sell the notion of college baseball in the Inland Northwest does serve as a subtle reinforcement of what it takes to play, and succeed, here.
Resiliency – and good players – have made the game relevant here again. No greater demonstration was there than Tuesday night, when the Bulldogs and Cougars met at Gonzaga’s palace on Cincinnati and Trent and the game, here in the bottom of half of May, actually carried some weight beyond the usual neighborly chest-puffing.
The Cougars, second in the Pacific-10 Conference with a showdown series against Washington in Pullman this weekend, are positioning themselves for an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament and every quality win counts. The Zags, should they happen to not win the best-of-3 West Coast Conference playoff they host starting Friday, would be in the same boat.
It has been 19 years since Wazzu made the Diamond Dance, 28 for the Zags – and 31 since they both did it together, when they happened to get shipped to the same regional in Tempe, Ariz.
Whether this is an anomaly or a turning point is impossible to say, but certainly it is something to enjoy – more so in the context of how it was achieved, and for some rough parallels in the journey.
First, the Cougs – if for no other reason than only once since the Pac-10 abandoned divisional play have they finished above eighth, lurching through the toxic coaching tenures of Steve Farrington and Tim Mooney. The Cougars had a harder time replacing Bobo Brayton than UCLA did John Wooden.
But in his fifth year on the job, Donnie Marbut is harvesting the fruit of his first recruiting efforts … sort of.
Four games into the season, center fielder Travis Coulter – “our best returning player,” Marbut said – shreds a shoulder diving back into a base on a pickoff play. Ross Humes, Wazzu’s top returning pitcher, blows out his arm after two innings. Catcher Greg Lagreid, nominated for the Johnny Bench award, strains a shoulder and is shunted to DH duty, and backup Alex Burg goes down a week later, leaving the job to Jay Ponciano – whose foot injury was so unresponsive a year ago that he actually gave up the game.
On Sunday, his RBI single allowed the Cougs to take a road series at Oregon State.
Yet somehow, the Cougs – after a 5-11 start in a non-conference schedule that included 11 opponents who’ve spent time in the top 25 – have won every Pac-10 series other than against third-ranked Arizona State and Stanford.
“They’ve played their tails off,” Marbut said. “Tell me that we’d lose our top returning arm and top returning player, and not have Jared Prince able to pitch, and I would have had a hard time keeping a straight face telling you we’d be in this position with a week left.”
Gonzaga coach Mark Machtolf’s every-game lineup, conversely, has been a wire-to-wire constant. And as the record climbed – the Zags have now won 33 games – they made a rare appearance in the rankings.
And just as quickly disappeared after what Machtolf called “a five-game stretch of the most remarkable finishes I’ve been associated with as a coach or player.”
Game 1: A loss to Portland, surrendering a three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth with two outs and having a runner thrown out at home in the ninth. Game 2: Another loss, despite a two-run homer to go ahead in the ninth, when Portland scores a second run in its half on a bang-bang play at the plate. Game 3: Trailing 8-7 in the ninth at home against Arizona, the tying run thrown out at the plate. Game 4: Scoring three in the ninth at Santa Clara to erase a two-run deficit. Game 5: Winning in 11 innings after knotting the game with two outs in the ninth with a home run.
“There are different kinds of resiliency,” Machtolf said. “They could have felt sorry for themselves losing those three after being ranked. That could have changed our season, but they didn’t let it.”
The Zags have twice been in the WCC playoffs this decade but lost both times, and didn’t have the résumé for an at-large bid. But not unlike Marbut, Machtolf – in his sixth year – is slowly shaping his roster, though he maintained that “recruiting will always be a challenge until winning becomes a precedent over weather.”
“There’s always been some good baseball played in the Northwest,” he said, “and when Oregon State won (the College World Series in 2006 and ’07) that was a breakthrough.”
Marbut is a little more expansive.
“My first year here was the last of the three 10-win football seasons,” he said, “and if the football staff could win 10 three years in a row, I knew something like that was do-able for us.
“Location wasn’t going to change when I took this job, but Oregon State’s success has told Northwest kids it’s OK to stay home – you can do special things. Look at what Gonzaga has done in basketball, and how they’ve helped themselves in baseball building new facilities. You’ve got to be willing to put the work in and do it, and what a wonderful thing it is when you see the reward.”
The Cougs and Zags haven’t reached that promised land yet. But, yes, they can see it.