PULLMAN – Never before has the USC Trojan baseball team just been a speed bump. Especially against Washington State. Especially in Pullman.
But that was the case this weekend, with the 24th-ranked Cougars running over USC again Sunday, posting an 8-2 win before 697 at Bailey-Brayton Field. WSU completed its first three-game sweep of the Trojans, outscoring the 12-time national champions 46-13.
It was the most runs USC has ever given up in a three-game series, the most WSU has scored since 1999 and more than likely ensured the 31-18 Cougars their first back-to-back NCAA appearances since 1987-88, when Bobo Brayton was prowling the coaching box.
“We’re in. You’ve got games to play but we’ve done enough, now we’re playing for seeding,” said the current WSU coach, Donnie Marbut, after closer-turned-starter Adam Conley limited USC (25-31, 5-19 Pac-10) to seven hits and two runs over eight innings.
That the probable postseason-clinching series – Washington State ends Pac-10 play next weekend at UCLA, at 16-8 second in the conference, two games ahead of WSU – came against the Trojans was historically poetic, seeing as USC continually kept the Cougars out of the postseason in the 1960s and ’70s during the height of the Brayton era.
But these aren’t your dad’s Trojans, as their record and WSU’s respective 20-7 and 18-4 wins on Friday and Saturday illustrate.
Still, USC kept the series finale close as long as Kevin Couture’s right shoulder held up.
The sophomore, throwing a combination of changeups and slow breaking balls, kept the Cougars off balance, limiting them to six hits and two runs – including a 400-foot solo home run to right center by Derek Jones, capping a 7-for-13, three-home-run, 11-RBI weekend – over six innings.
“He pitches backward,” Marbut said. “He throws the fastball when you’re not expecting and he did a really nice job.”
Couture couldn’t answer the bell for the seventh, however, because of a sprained shoulder, and WSU feasted on the Trojans’ bullpen. The Cougars raked Chad Smith and Brandon Garcia for a run in the seventh – leadoff hitter Garry Kuykendall’s solo home run down the right-field line – and five more in the eighth on four hits and two USC fielding miscues.
“It’s tough to be in their shoes. My freshman year we were and it’s really hard to keep plugging away,” said Matt Fanelli, one of five WSU seniors honored before the game and 3 for 4 with an RBI during it.
Conley didn’t show much empathy on the mound. The sophomore left-hander spent the first two-thirds of the season as WSU’s closer – he still is second in the conference with 10 saves – but, with the starting rotation thinned by injuries, has stepped into a starter’s role.
“At the beginning of the season I didn’t know what my role was going to be. We were kind of back-and-forth on whether I was going to start or close,” he said.
“At this point I just want to throw, I want to pitch however they want me to pitch.”
Conley (5-2 with a team-best 2.57 ERA) has embraced the starter’s mentality, going as far as arguing with pitching coach Gregg Swenson for a chance to finish the game. He lost. But it was his only defeat. Over his eight innings, Conley was rarely threatened, yielding a run on a double-steal attempt in the third and another on a two-out single by Mike O’Neill.
“He was good but (early) he couldn’t put guys away,” Marbut said of Conley’s 117-pitch performance. “Credit USC. They were battling, battling.”
With five regular-season games left (at Gonzaga on Tuesday and hosting Portland on Wednesday before the UCLA series), WSU will battle to keep the roll going in preparation for the postseason, a fate that will be announced on Memorial Day.
“The last three weeks we’ve put it together pretty nicely,” Fanelli said, alluding to WSU winning eight of its last nine Pac-10 games. “You can’t just stop just because we made the tournament. We want to keep this momentum, play really well this week and tune up for a team (UCLA) we might see in a super regional.”