PULLMAN – As a planned fireworks display sounded in the background, Donnie Marbut spent a good 15 minutes speaking with his Washington State baseball team in left field at Bailey-Brayton Field on Saturday night.
The Cougars had just lost to California 9-4, an effort plagued by the most frustrating of problems – little help from the bullpen in long relief, little in the way of hitting with men in scoring position.
All of which make today’s stakes a little higher.
“Biggest game of the season,” Marbut said. “You’ve got to win series. At this point in the season, you’ve got to win series and you’ve got to compete at a high level.”
If WSU wants to compete at an even higher level – the NCAA tournament, to be precise – a win today could be essential. The Cougars (23-19, 9-10 Pac-12) won the first game of this series on Friday, and might need a win today to maintain their hopes of being selected to participate in the postseason. WSU and Cal entered the weekend tied at No. 73 in the national RPI rankings, and the Cougars are projected by several outlets to be on the wrong side of the tournament bubble.
The Bears (24-19, 8-12) blew Saturday’s game open in the seventh inning thanks to Chad Bunting’s three-run homer off reliever Sean Hartnett, who was pitching in part because starter Joe Pistorese left with two outs in the fifth with shoulder fatigue after throwing just 68 pitches. That, and reliever Kyle Swannack had allowed two runs on three hits without recording an out.
Cal’s win snapped a five-game losing streak in Pullman.
“Obviously, we weren’t very good in the pen at all,” said Marbut, adding that he thinks Pistorese should be fine going forward. “Ball one, ball two, ball three, we’re behind. We had no leverage with our pitch counts at all on the defensive end. We weren’t ahead of anybody, and Cal can swing the bat.”
Pistorese left the game with a 2-1 count on Cal’s Andrew Knapp with two outs in the fifth and the Cougars trailing 2-1. Swannack allowed a run-scoring double to Knapp, then a single by Tony Renda, and another double by Mitch Delfino scored two more runs to give Cal a 5-1 lead.
Each time the Cougars made it semi-interesting, Cal scored more runs. Taylor Ard drove in a run in the top of the fifth to make it 5-2, but the Bears used a sacrifice fly to answer back in the top of the sixth.
RBI singles by Collin Slaybaugh and Ian Sagdal trimmed Cal’s lead to 6-4 in the bottom of the sixth.
Then two walks preceded a long homer over the left-field fence by Bunting in the top of the seventh, and that, essentially, was that.
WSU stranded 11 runners, leaving the bases loaded in the fifth and seventh, then leaving two more in the eighth.
Leadoff hitter Kyle Johnson hit into a rare double play to end the Cougars’ rally in the sixth.
Marbut said that Cal starter Matt Flemer didn’t have his best stuff, though he still held the Cougars to four runs through six innings to earn the win.
“You want to get the starter out of the ballgame, and we did that,” Marbut said. “It was just too much of a hole for us to dig out of.
“We’ve got to fight and we didn’t individually fight as much as we need to fight. I’m not talking about fighting each other. In athletics, you’ve got to compete and fight and I didn’t see a lot of fight out of some individuals tonight.”