The happy residue of both Gonzaga and Washington State picking this as their year to return to the NCAA baseball tournament after an extended hiatus is probability taking a beating all the way around.
The Zags haven’t been in the Diamond Dance since 1981, the Cougs since 1990. So this is a convergence of the unlikely, and among the small wonderments nudging the story along are the cases of Jay Ponciano and Tyson Van Winkle.
That they played on the same high school team – Hudson’s Bay in Vancouver, Wash. – is almost incidental. With schools 75 miles apart recruiting the best programs in the state, that’s something of a geographic inevitability.
But it isn’t often that a high school will produce a Division I-quality catcher in successive years, or that they would carry the highest batting averages on their respective teams – especially since one couldn’t get in the lineup at the start of the season, and the other is never out of it.
Different animals they are. The durable and the curable. The unrecruited and the almost unrequited.
You could call Ponciano the Cougars’ good luck charm, in more ways than one. If the goal is to reach the College World Series, it’s nice to have a teammate who’s gone all the way. Ponciano’s Hazel Dell Little League team made it to Williamsport, Pa., in 2000 and his Babe Ruth teams won that world series twice.
But the Cougars are also 12-5 since necessity – injuries to Greg Lagreid and Alex Burg, touted by coach Donnie Marbut as the nation’s best 1-2 catching combination – thrust him into the lineup a month ago.
Or maybe it was karmic payback. Ponciano didn’t play an inning his first two years on campus, shelved by a stress fracture in his foot. By his second spring, he all but told Marbut he was done and gave up his scholarship.
“It was tough to even go to baseball games,” he said. “I was bitter about not being able to play.”
Did he accept it?
“In my brain, I did,” Ponciano said. “But something inside me didn’t seem right not playing.”
It still didn’t seem right when the pain finally subsided and he walked back on to the program this year only to find himself buried behind the two seniors.
“I understood,” he admitted, “but I didn’t want to be that guy.”
He wanted to be The Guy – and has been since getting his opportunity. Lagreid has been able to DH since straining his shoulder and Burg should be available this weekend, but Ponciano has hit .378 with four home runs and 21 RBIs in just 82 at bats, making him hard to displace.
Something Van Winkle knows about.
He was a year behind at Hudson’s Bay, catching only when Ponciano pitched. He was still mostly a pitcher-infielder as a senior, but always itched to be behind the plate because he liked “the grind of it,” he said. “You feel accomplished after the game – that you’ve worked hard and been right in the middle of it.”
So Gonzaga seemed a good choice, because the Zags were looking for a catcher. And it helped that they were the only Division I program recruiting him.
The transition was fitful. He hit just .140 in 14 starts as a freshman, redshirted with an injury as a sophomore and split time with Grant Kveder last year, raising his average to .298. This year injuries slowed Kveder and GU’s other catching option, Anthony Synegal, so Van Winkle has caught all but one of the Zags’ 453 innings.
It’s not a wear-and-tear issue as in the pros – the Zags don’t play every day. Coach Mark Machtolf monitors Van Winkle’s fatigue by how he’s swinging the bat – but hitting .361 and leading the team in slugging percentage, there isn’t much to monitor.
“He’s actually gotten stronger as the season has gone on,” Machtolf said.
He’s not the only one who’s noticed.
“He was probably our best hitter in high school,” Ponciano said, “but watching him now it’s easy to see how much better he’s got – he’s faster, stronger, his arm and bat speed are so much better. I’m happy to see all the success he’s had.”
Whatever their disparate tales, Ponciano and Van Winkle share one important motivator: unfinished business. Despite his frustrations, Ponciano could not turn the game loose. Undersized at 5-foot-9, he had always played with a chip on his shoulder – and came back to Wazzu even with established catchers ahead of him because he “didn’t want to start over and wanted to be a part of what was going on here.”
Van Winkle could have turned pro after getting picked by Houston in last summer’s draft, though being a 39th-rounder wasn’t going to launch him on a professional fast track.
“But I didn’t feel a sense of closure,” he said. “I just didn’t feel right about signing. There was more to be accomplished. There was a chance to turn some heads this year and do something special.”
And now there’s a chance to do more.