With 700 miles to travel, it took until Monday morning for the thunder – OK, the very, very loud pings – from Gonzaga’s bats heard over the weekend in California to resound in Spokane.
Still pretty loud, though – until being drowned out by an explosion of cheers from the Bulldogs themselves when their name went up at last near the end of ESPNU’s NCAA baseball selection show.
Sure, their dogpiling was done on Saturday. Maybe Monday’s roar was celebrating a small surprise: their destination.
The Zags are off to the four-team Minneapolis regional, with an 11 a.m. PDT date Friday against UCLA. That kept them out of the line of fire of two other regional hosts, second-ranked Oregon State and No. 3 Stanford – Gonzaga coach Mark Machtolf’s alma mater and where his old College World Series teammate, David Esquer, is the head coach.
“That doesn’t break my heart,” Macholf said, only half in jest. “I’ve seen the campus and I talk to him enough on the phone.”
The Zags are in their second NCAA Tournament in three years by virtue of their blitz through the West Coast Conference event last week in Stockton, California, where they broke out the big steel in outscoring opponents 34-5. That’s crazy enough in postseason play, but even more so in this context: in their first three WCC series of the season, the Bulldogs scored just 31 runs. At one point, GU lost seven of eight one-run games – but the Zags have raised their team batting average 15 points in a month.
“It was frustrating, especially for a guy like me who is offensive minded,” said Machtolf. “But our guys kept battling and came out of it – and pitching always gave us a chance.”
And that hasn’t changed – notice the mere five runs surrendered in those three WCC tournament games. This team is nothing if not well-armed.
In starters Daniel Bies, Mac Lardner and Alek Jacob, the Zags have the Nos. 2, 4, and 7 pitchers in the WCC in earned-run average – and a team ERA of 2.96 that’s sixth in the nation. Only seven teams in the bracket have posted more shutouts than Gonzaga’s six.
“They’re also about as diverse a weekend rotation as you can get,” said pitching coach Brandon Harmon.
It starts with Bies, a 6-foot-8 righthander with a 94 mph fastball whose grandfather, Don, won a PGA Tour event in 1975 – and a bunch more along with about $3 million on the Senior Tour. It usually finishes on Sunday with Lardner, the protypical crafty lefthander with a plus changeup and location.
And in between, there’s what Harmon calls “the funky sidewinder,” Alek Jacob from Spokane’s North Central High School, who pitched his way into the rotation last fall – and has limited opposing batters to a .196 average. He somehow missed out on being the WCC’s Freshman of the Year in the biggest award whiff since Oscar voters struck down Samuel L. Jackson with great vengeance and furious anger.
Though he’s pretty self-affacing about it all.
“I throw after Bies and he’s a big power guy,” Jacob said. “I bring something teams don’t see a lot. From a lower arm slot, my pitches move differently. It’s a big change of pace after seeing a heat-thrower like Bies.”
In other ways, too. Jacob’s a virtual overnight sensation. Bies was actually cut from the team as a freshman, set back by Tommy John surgery in high school. He pitched just seven innings the next year and had a horrid start to 2017, and credits his current success to those early failures.
“I fell in love with working hard that spring I got cut because I wasn’t allowed to work out with the team,” he recalled. “Actually, not making the team that year was one of the best things that happened to me.”
So flush were the Zags with starting pitching that Machtolf and Harmon went to sophomore Casey Legumina – a part-time starter last year – two weeks before the season to ask if he’d be the team’s closer. He’s saved 13 of GU’s 32 wins.
“At first you think it kind of sucks,” he said. “But you have to do what’s needed to win and I really didn’t realize how big of a role it is. I’m glad I’m doing it now.”
The NCAA field gets ever more homogeneous: the Zags are one of just 17 “cold-weather” schools in the bracket. More ominous still: only eight teams representing the five western conferences are in – two fewer than the SEC’s 10.
Naturally, the Zags drew one of them in UCLA. Just as naturally, the Bruins have a staff to match the Zags – third in the country in ERA. Runs will be hard to come by.
Then again, they may only need one.
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