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John Blanchette: Gonzaga sees its name on NCAA baseball selection show

Gonzaga baseball coach Mark Machtolf. (PHOTO BY AMY SINISTERRA / Photo by Amy Sinisterra)
Gonzaga baseball coach Mark Machtolf. (PHOTO BY AMY SINISTERRA / Photo by Amy Sinisterra)
John Blanchette Correspondent

At Gonzaga University, they’ve become adept at pirouetting through the at-large minefields over the years, and Selection Sunday is now a mostly angst-free exercise. But that’s been a basketball thing.

So forgive the Bulldogs players who teetered between bravado and doom when the NCAA revealed this year’s baseball bracket.

“We thought our resume was good enough and we’d read enough sites that had us in,” admitted catcher Joey Harris, “but when you’re name doesn’t show up in the first two or three regionals there’s always that sliver of doubt.”

So the cheer that went up when the Zags were paired against Arizona State in the Fort Worth Regional hosted by TCU was very real – equal parts joy and relief for a moment, in its way, as significant or more so than when their basketball compadres broke the at-large ceiling back in 2003.

Baseball’s geography being something short of equal opportunity.

Of the 33 at-large schools invited Monday, just five are located above the 40th parallel – Boston College, Nebraska, Minnesota, Washington and Gonzaga. You’ll recognize the one in that litter without the Uber Conference pedigree.

“It’s a huge jump for us,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Machtolf. “In recruiting, everybody uses the (argument) that, ‘Hey, you’re going to have to win the league to get into the tournament there.’ No longer can they say that. This team put us over the hump.”

Well, one hump. There are more to come.

But making sure humps don’t grow into Alps has become something of a speciality for these Zags.

Consider their starting point – back-to-back sub-.500 seasons, the only such time that’s happened on Machtolf’s 13-year watch. No ugly nadirs, but the sort of lack of fulfillment that can make for itchy seniors looking to crank three-run homers with the bases empty.

“But I wouldn’t say there’s been a sense of urgency,” said junior pitcher Brandon Bailey, the Zags’ Friday-night starter. “Goals and expectations, yes – but no added pressure.”

So the schedule provided some. If the Zags top the NCAA field in nothing else, they have this: road time.

Like most northern-tier teams, the Bulldogs spend their first month of the season playing games in southern climes. But complicating matters was the West Coast Conference schedule. It was GU’s year to play five of its nine series on the road, but instead the Zags wound up with six – swapping a home set with Loyola Marymount this year to play the Lions here on graduation weekend next spring.

In all, the Zags played just 10 of 50 regular-season games at their little jewel along the river.

“Next year, I think we’ll have the most home games we’ll ever have – 27 or something,” Machtolf said. “But I was proud of this group to handle that. One of their best assets is their toughness – and that road schedule really helped our RPI.”

Yes, the Ratings Percentage Index is something to be finessed, just as it is in basketball. Gonzaga checked in at 30 – more important than you might think, considering the shafting Oregon State received with the same 35-19 record 14 spots lower.

This Zags team has been an interesting mix – solid defense, a terrific 1-2 starting punch of Bailey (17 strikeouts in a WCC tourney win over BYU) and Eli Morgan (8-0 in WCC play) and a just-enough lineup that includes WCC Player of the Year Jeff Bohling. Machtolf likes that “they don’t have huge numbers, but they battle. You’re not always going to get 15 hits, so you have to win the games when you just get six or seven.”

And when you’re feeling a little beat up.

Among their losses this season have been some crushers – a two-run, walk-off homer beating them at Saint Mary’s, and a five-run ninth wiping out a 4-0 lead at BYU for two examples. That’s baseball. As Machtolf pointed out, “The more games you’re in a position to win, the more often it’s going to happen.”

But in virtually every instance, the Bulldogs have bounced back. Harris crushed two homers on getaway day against the Gaels, and the Zags started an eight-game winning streak after the BYU loss.

“These guys are so resilient,” said Harris, “and some of that is just playing for each other. This game is so competitive. Everybody wants to hit in the 3-hole or start on Friday night, and not everybody can. Sometimes you have to know your role and take your identity from what’s on the front of your jersey.”

Even after absorbing a 13-4 shellacking from Saint Mary’s in the second game of the WCC tournament, the Zags rode Tyler Frost’s 10th-inning walk-off into the title game for the automatic NCAA bid – which also ended in a 13-4 loss. Now the selection committee has given them an opportunity to rebound from that.

It’s livin’ – at-large.

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