Disregarding the still-annoying ping of bats that are mined and smelted rather than chopped and lathed, college baseball has it all over the pros in one respect: labeling the starting rotation.
Numbering pitchers 1 through 5 – in order of purported ability – is not just boring and dehumanizing, it courts failure on the back end. Nobody has any expectation of the No. 5 guy; why should he have any of himself?
The college game? Much more fun. It sounds like the address book in a female date-aholic’s BlackBerry.
There’s the Friday Night Guy, the Saturday Night Guy and the Sunday Guy.
Chad Arnold has been all of them and all things considered, TGIF again – at least now that he’s ready enough to be Mr. Friday Night.
That means he’s first up for Washington State when the Cougars make their second straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament – facing Kansas State on Friday evening in the Fayetteville Regional.
Three victories get the Cougs another step down the trail toward Omaha and the College World Series, and surely that’s more easily done if the first one comes on Friday. Then again, with the way the Cougars have fought back from two strikes, two outs or two runs down this year, it’s probably pointless to plot any best-route scenarios.
“We’ve got guys who’ve been here for the good times and the bad times,” Arnold reasoned. “I just don’t think it’s in our makeup to back down.”
The company line – and it’s a familiar one – is that there was a certain just-glad-to-be-here vibe to the Cougars’ 2009 NCAA appearance, their first in 19 seasons, that does not exist this time around. Naturally, we never heard about that vibe a year ago – but, hey, they have to say something when they’re inevitably asked, “What’s different this time around?”
But it’s undeniable that the roster is speckled with veterans of last year’s NCAAs and that having been afforded a taste they have developed an appetite for more. Not much difference in the other dugout: K-State hadn’t been to the tournament in 109 years – not just 19 – before getting in last year.
Actually, make that every dugout.
“On all those teams,” Arnold said, “there’s a little different look in their eyes.”
Surely there is a different look to Arnold than there was the first time he toed the rubber for the Cougars two years ago.
He was the Friday Night Guy then, too – though just a redshirt freshman, but with some credentials, having helped Southridge win a State 4A championship as a sophomore and having been selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 36th round of the 2006 draft. He wasn’t going to sign anyway, but blowing out an elbow in his first Legion game that summer cinched it.
Then he lasted just an inning in Wazzu’s 2008 opening loss to Creighton, and things didn’t get better soon. By the start of the Pac-10 season, coach Donnie Marbut acknowledged it was too much too soon and Arnold was out of the rotation. A month later, he’d returned as the Sunday guy, but lost his last five starts and finished with an earned run average of 7.67.
“I’m not going to lie – it was pretty overwhelming,” he said. “It had been almost 18 months since I’d pitched competitively and the hype – everyone talks about pitching on Friday and I think mentally it just got to me. I wasn’t prepared for it.”
He was considerably more effective in 2009 as the Saturday starter behind ace Matt Way – 8-3, with a 4.39 ERA – and gutted out a 3-2 win over Wichita State to keep the Cougars alive in last year’s regional after an opening loss to Arkansas, their host this year.
“You have to earn what you get,” Arnold said, “and (as a freshman) I hadn’t earned anything yet. I learned a lot last season – preparation, confidence. That’s a lot of what I feel this year, knowing that you’re being trusted to do well and give your team the best opportunity you can.”
By Friday Guy standards, Arnold isn’t a dominator. He doesn’t have the microscopic ERA or double-digit wins – his record is a modest 5-3. But the Cougars have won nine of his 15 starts, and on two other occasions he left with leads the bullpen let get away.
There’s a flipside to that, of course – the Cougars allowed him to take away no-decisions by rallying for three of their 18 come-from-behind wins after he’d left the game. But that’s part of his charter.
“You always want things to go better, but your job is to give your team a chance to win every start,” Arnold said. “I want to stay out there as long as I can and keep battling because these guys are going to make something happen. Coach Marbut does a good job of stressing that there’s 27 outs and nine innings, every game.”
And every day. But it all starts with Friday.