With just a few weeks left in the season Gonzaga still has not settled on a closer and that’s just fine with pitching coach Steve Bennett. While he admits that having one dominant reliever who can lock up a win in the game’s final innings is a luxury, for now he is enjoying the flexibility that comes with a group of prospective closers.
“We play with the matchups and have a number of guys we think can come in and do the job. We see how they’re feeling at that time,” Bennett said.
Early in the season Kenny Smith closed out games. Then the coaches realized that Smith’s ability to induce groundball outs made him more valuable in a setup role, coming in with runners on base to set up double plays.
He works well from the stretch and has a good fastball, a changeup and a slider.
Juggling the players has not gotten any easier with decreased innings for the bullpen, even if the workload has been easier on the relievers, themselves. The Bulldogs having a starting rotation consisting of a freshman and two sophomores, who have been pitching better and deeper into games of late.
“It really does take a lot of pressure off the bullpen,” reliever Karl Myers said. “Having your starters go six-plus innings each time out allows you to play matchups with everyone available in each game.”
Without the need for a long reliever, and with freshman starter Brandon Bailey throwing three complete games this season, playing time has been scarce for whoever isn’t the week’s closer du jour.
David Bigelow has tried his hand in the role, so has Sean-Luke Brija. Lately, Myers has been called upon in save situations, but that could change.
“Over the last couple years I’ve done everything,” said Smith of his varying roles. “A couple starts here and there, some long relief, setup and closing. As a reliever, the territory, it comes with it. There are a lot of guys on staff right now that can get in there.”
That means the pressure could be on anybody in the bullpen at the climax of a crucial game, and the games could not be more crucial for the Bulldogs. To make the NCAA tournament, GU must first be one of the four teams to qualify for the West Coast Conference tournament.
League-leading Pepperdine has already clinched the top seed and five other teams, including Gonzaga, are vying for the remaining three playoff spots.
If any of those teams gets 17 conference wins they’ll be in the tournament and a five-way tie for second place at 16-11 is still in play.
“Everything is going to come down to this weekend for sure,” Smith said. “We just have to beat Pepperdine and then see where we end up.”
The Cougars won’t be making the playoffs this season, but they are making a late-season push that could see them finish with their first winning conference record since 2010.
Washington State took two of three games in their last two Pac-12 series, against USC and Utah, to pull to .500 in conference play. With 12 conference wins the Cougars are already well past last year’s mark of nine conference wins.
The team could have had a sweep at home last week against the worst team in the conference, but struggled to score runs on a Utah team that has the worst earned-run average in the conference at 5.00 runs per nine innings.