The Gonzaga baseball team struggled to a 2-8 start over its first 10 games. But those early losses will have little impact if the Bulldogs can keep winning against league competition.
The team has currently won eight of its past 10 games and has won five consecutive series against West Coast Conference competition. The Bulldogs are in a three-way tie for second place in the conference, which sends only its top four teams to the WCC tournament.
That tournament will decide the conference’s automatic entry into the NCAA Division I baseball tournament.
“We’re starting to realize we can do some dangerous things with this team. Basically we’ve got a lot of momentum right now,” Cory LeBrun, who saw a 14-game hitting streak end on Saturday.
“When the hitters aren’t doing well the pitchers are picking us up, when the pitchers aren’t doing well we are putting up seven, eight runs to protect them,” he added.
A tough schedule off the bat, and some new faces on the mound, played a part in GU’s early string of losses. The team opened the season with three national tournaments that featured losses to teams such as No. 2 Oregon State and No. 9 Nebraska.
After those tournaments the Bulldogs suffered a three-game sweep at No. 24 UC Irvine.
It proved to be too much to soon, especially for a team whose starting rotation is a freshman and two sophomores. Freshman Brandon Bailey has gone 5-2 with a 2.72 ERA in WCC games after going 0-3 with a 4.88 ERA in his first four starts.
After appearing to stabilize somewhat when conference play started the Bulldogs had another losing stretch, including eight consecutive losses from the end of March through the beginning of April, albeit including a pair to then No. 19 Oregon.
But those earlier losses may be just what the Bulldogs needed to prepare for WCC competition.
“We learned so much in those games. We’re playing (No. 2) Oregon State in the season opener and we’re winning 3-2 but lose 4-3,” Payden Cawley Lamb said. “We learned we can’t make any mistakes.”
The outfielder leads GU with a .389 batting average, highest in the conference. His on-base percentage of .455 is the fourth-best mark in the WCC and teammate Mitch Gunsolus is tied for fifth at .438.
They lead an offense that has scored 55 runs in its last 10 games. The team’s pitchers are fourth in the conference with a 3.86 ERA in WCC games while the batters are No. 5 with a .282 batting average.
Five of the team’s six batters that have played at least 43 games are hitting .272 or better.
“We’ve always been a team with great pitching but we’re really hitting the ball well throughout the lineup,” Cawley Lamb said.
The Bulldogs have seven games left – six against conference foes – in which to separate from a bunched pack atop the WCC standings.
Cougs out of postseason
Washington State picked up a series win over No. 24 USC over the weekend and is well positioned to finish above .500 in the tough Pac-12 Conference.
Most years that would be enough to ensure a postseason berth in the NCAA tournament but early-season struggles of their own will likely keep the Cougars home this postseason.
“For me, if you have a winning record in the Pac-12, one of the toughest conferences in the country, you should be invited to the dance,” assistant coach Gregg Swenson said. “But there is a formula that’s out there that’s really hard to understand where our ratings have put us in a position where we can’t comfortably say yes this year.”
The Cougars still host last-place Utah and have opportunities to improve their conference standing in remaining series against Arizona State and Stanford. But WSU could likely win the rest of its game and still not improve its No. 98 RPI enough to receive an at-large selection.
Head coach Donnie Marbut returned from his six-game suspension for WSU’s 4-3 win over USC in 10 innings on Saturday. Marbut had been suspended by the Pac-12 after he was ejected from a game at Oregon on April 19, and allegedly spat on an umpire during an argument.
The Cougars went 2-4 with Swenson leading the team in Marbut’s absence.