Knowing they were already one of the 64 teams in the 2009 NCAA Division I baseball championship field took much of the suspense out of Monday morning’s television viewing for the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Still, the Zags couldn’t help but expel a collective cheer – tinged with both relief and excitement – upon learning they will head to Fullerton, Calif., later this week to take on Georgia Southern in the opening round of one of 16 four-team NCAA Regionals scattered across the country.
“No question, it’s more enjoyable watching when you know,” GU coach Mark Machtolf said after gathering with his team in the Herak Club Room of the McCarthy Athletic Center to watch the NCAA’s Memorial Day selection show. “There’s not as much suspense, but to see your name pop up there, and to finally know where you’re going and what you need to do to move on, is still really exciting.”
The Bulldogs (35-16), who will be making their first NCAA appearance since 1981, earned an automatic berth in this year’s event last weekend by winning the first two games of a best-of-3 series against Loyola Marymount in the West Coast Conference Championship Series.
GU will face Southern Conference champion Georgia Southern (42-15) at 3 p.m. on Friday at Goodwin Field in the first game of a double-elimination regional that also includes host Cal State Fullerton (42-14) and Utah (26-29), who play in Friday’s 7 p.m. nightcap.
Fullerton, the No. 2 overall seed behind Texas, is seeded No. 1 in its own regional, followed by Georgia Southern, Gonzaga and Utah.
Machtolf admitted knowing little about Georgia Southern, which also landed an automatic berth by defeating Elon 7-3 in the title game of the Southern Conference tournament.
“It’s not the easiest team to get information on,” he added. “But we’ll look at their schedule, see who they’ve played and who we might know and then get on the telephone and get some data.”
The Eagles, who have won 10 of their last 11 games – with the loss coming on the road against Auburn, are paced offensively by senior catcher Griffin Benedict, who is hitting .401 with 11 home runs and a team-high 61 runs batted in, and senior outfielder Phillip Porter, hitting .368 with 11 homers and 50 RBIs.
Junior right-hander Chris Moderos (11-1) is the ace of Southern’s pitching staff, having struck out 112 batters in 931/3 innings while compiling a 3.66 earned-run average.
But Machtolf seems confident his Bulldogs will be ready for whatever challenges lie ahead after winning the WCC regular-season title and playing one of the most difficult non-league schedules in school history.
“I think we’re a little deeper on the mound this year, and we have some veteran leadership – guys who have been around for a while,” he explained. “I feel like we’ve prepared ourselves and done everything we can to give this a go.”
Staff ace Matt Fields (8-1, 2.86 ERA), one of eight seniors on GU’s roster and the scheduled starter in Friday’s regional opener, claims this is the best Bulldogs team he has been a part of and feels the same as Machtolf about its ability to deal with the pressure of playing in the NCAAs.
“From the fall, because of all the seniors we have, we’ve felt like we would get here,” Fields said. “The biggest difference with this team is our pitching staff. We have a bunch of guys who have thrown a lot of innings, and our offense is scrappy.
“It seems like we never go away, because our pitching keeps us in games.”
Machtolf plans to start junior Steven Ames (8-1, 3.51 ERA) in Saturday’s second round of the regional, and go with senior A.J. Proszek (2-1, 3.09 ERA) in the third game, provided the Zags make it that far.
Machtolf added, however, that he might use Proszek out of the bullpen to protect a lead in either of the first two games.
“And after that, it’s whoever’s left,” he said.