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Zags, LMU battle for WCC title this weekend

The West Coast Conference pennant race has played out in a manner that has lived up to even Mark Machtolf’s lofty expectations.

But Gonzaga University’s sixth-year coach admits he could have lived without the extended layoff his Bulldogs recently endured after taking two of three games from Saint Mary’s to move into a first-place tie with Loyola Marymount atop the WCC standings.

“There’s nothing like delaying the drama, I guess,” said Machtolf, whose Zags will entertain LMU on Friday in the first game of a crucial three-game weekend series that will determine the WCC’s regular-season champion. “And it makes it even worse when you don’t even practice.”

Following their series win over Saint Mary’s on May 1-3, the Bulldogs were faced with a nine-day layoff prior to their two-game non-conference series against Oregon State that concludes this afternoon in Corvallis, Ore. They took three complete days off to deal with final exams and then got back to baseball with an intersquad scrimmage Friday.

Machtolf said the short OSU series was scheduled to help keep his players from losing their competitive edge between WCC series. But he won’t know whether that strategy pays off until this weekend when LMU visits Washington Trust Field for the final conference series of the year.

Friday’s game starts at 6:30 p.m., with both Saturday’s and Sunday’s starting at 1.

The team that wins the series will not only claim the regular-season WCC title, but will also earn the right to host the league’s best-of-3 playoff series to determine its automatic qualifier in the NCAA Regionals.

The regular-season champion and the team that finishes second will open the WCC playoffs May 22, with the winner advancing to regional play, which begins May 29.

Although Gonzaga and LMU were picked to finish fourth and sixth, respectively, in a preseason poll of league coaches, there is a good chance they will hook up again in the WCC playoffs. The only other team with a chance to slip into the No. 2 spot in the standings is preseason favorite San Diego, which would have to sweep its final WCC series against San Francisco this weekend to move past the GU-LMU series loser.

“I suppose it’s a little surprising, especially if you look at the preseason rankings, which usually don’t hold true,” Machtolf said of the importance of this weekend’s series against the Lions. “But you couldn’t have scripted it any better for us.

“I feel good about having a three-game set at home and having to take two out of three to win the title. You couldn’t ask for anything more. We’re excited about the challenge and know it’s going to be one, because Loyola Marymount is a very good team.”

The Lions come in having swept three games from San Diego in their last WCC series earlier this month. They boast one of the league’s top pitchers in Lee Roberts, a senior right-hander, who is 7-0 with a 3.15 earned-run average. Roberts, who will probably get the start in Friday’s series opener, was named the WCC’s player of the month for April after going 4-0 last month and pitching at least seven innings in each of his four starts.

LMU is also one of the best hitting teams in the WCC, and will bring a team batting average of better than .300 into this weekend’s series against GU.

But Machtolf hopes his Zags can benefit from the experience of having played in the WCC playoffs just two seasons back, when they dropped two out of three games to 2007 regular-season champion San Diego.

“Having guys that have been through it before is very valuable, I think,” Machtolf said, pointing out that seniors Ryan Wiegand, Evan Wells and Matt Fields were all regulars on his last playoff team. “There’s kind a calming influence with those guys who know this is not something to fret or get overwhelmed by.

“We preach that to our team, anyway – to just go about your business and do the same thing every day, no matter who you’re playing. But those guys who have been through it can kind put those words into practice.”

Beavers pull away: Four Gonzaga pitchers combined for 10 strikeouts, but 25th-ranked Oregon State pulled away late for an 8-1 non-conference win at Corvallis, Ore.

It was Gonzaga’s first game in eight days after a layoff for final exams and graduation.

Beavers pitcher Tyler Waldron limited the Bulldogs to two hits while striking out eight.

Cougs back on road

After closing an eight-game homestand – its longest of the season – Washington State will head to Corvallis, Ore., to resume Pacific-10 Conference play with a three-game weekend series against Oregon State that kicks off with a 5 p.m. matchup Friday.

The Cougars will travel to Gonzaga for a non-conference makeup game Tuesday before closing Pac-10 and regular-season play with a three-game series against archrival Washington on May 22-24.

Cougs go deep, beat Portland: Washington State hit three home runs to knock off Portland 10-5 in a non-conference game at Pullman.

It was the Cougars’ fourth straight win. Adam Conley gave up three runs in five innings while striking out three to earn his first college win. Jared Prince, Michael Weber and Greg Lagreid homered.

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