PULLMAN – May was just two days old when Washington State University coach Donnie Marbut decided to ask his team a question.
“We talked after the Oregon series that we had a 16-game season,” Marbut said Monday. “What can we do in 16 games?”
Before May ends, Marbut will know the answer. Halfway through the month that will decide if the Cougars (28-18 overall) will appear in back-to-back NCAA tournaments for the first time since 1988 (postseason bids are announced May 31), the results have been nearly perfect.
Since the Oregon series ended in consecutive losses, dropping WSU’s overall record to 22-17, 6-9 in Pac-10 play, the Cougars have won six of seven overall, five of six conference games – the loss was Friday at Stanford, 8-7, in a game WSU led 7-3 going into the bottom of the eighth – and have moved into a tie for third in the conference standings.
Besides asking pertinent questions, what else is the WSU staff up to?
“We’re kind of just staying out of their way, to be honest with you,” Marbut said. “It’s their team.”
With two Pac-10 series – WSU hosts last-place USC this weekend then travels to No. 10 UCLA to end the regular season – and three non-conference games – including a 6:30 visit tonight to Gonzaga – remaining, Marbut thinks the Cougars’ postseason chances are solid.
“I think we’re in a good position right now,” he said, “with our strength of schedule – we play one of the toughest schedules in the country – our RPI (in the top 35 nationally) is high and placing high in the league.
“It goes without saying this year the Pac-10 is the toughest conference in the country.”
Eight Pac-10 teams have been ranked at least once this season – WSU remerged in the rankings this week, earning the No. 24 spot in Baseball America Magazine’s poll – which bolsters Marbut’s point. And underscores the Cougars’ goals.
“Our whole goal is to try to win series,” Marbut said. “In this league if you win series, you know you’re doing good things. We try to win every game we play and try to win a series against a good club, because every weekend you play a good club.”
If WSU posts at least a 4-2 conference mark the next two weeks, an at-large berth would seem to be a given. Though nothing seemed so clear after the Oregon series.
The Cougars expected their rotation this season to be junior ace Chad Arnold, sophomore left-hander David Stilley and freshman Travis Cook. Of that trio, only Arnold (4-2 with a 3.43 ERA pitching exclusively on Friday night, when college teams throw their premier starter) remains due to injuries and ineffectiveness.
Junior James Wise and former closer Adam Conley now round out the rotation, both of whom pitched well at Stanford.
Wise, who entered Saturday’s game with a 1-1 record, a 5.23 ERA and more hits than innings pitched, left it as the Pac-10’s pitcher of the week, going eight shutout innings, giving up four hits, walking one and striking out eight. His ERA dropped to 4.20.
“When it comes to pitching, we’ve had no consistency in the rotation. Coach Swenson has done a great job of mixing and matching and keeps developing guys,” Marbut said, mentioning pitching coach Gregg Swenson.
“I’m way more proud of this year’s team than last year’s team,” Marbut added. “This team has gone through so much adversity and injuries.”
As the season winds down, Gonzaga’s Mark Castellitto is heating up. The senior left fielder has raised his average to .339, but more impressively leads the Zags with 11 home runs and 45 RBIs, fifth in the WCC. Center fielder Drew Heid’s .383 is third in the conference and his 82 hits leads. Freshman second baseman Clayton Eslick moved into the cleanup spot in the Zags’ 2-1 series win over Saint Mary’s last weekend and responded with a 4-for-11 weekend that included four RBIs.
•Community Colleges of Spokane finished its season 25-19, but the Sasquatch’s 13-15 conference record (fifth in East Region standings) wasn’t good enough to get them into the NWAACC championships in Longview at the end of the month. Sophomore Taylor King led CCS with three home runs and 32 RBIs while hitting .293. Sophomore Derek Carley posted the team’s highest average at .346. Sophomore Justin Murphy finished the season with five wins and three saves, both team highs, while sophomore Martin Aguirre and freshman Dillon Watkins had four wins each.
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