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After lengthy offseason, Gonzaga baseball remains right in the mix for WCC crown

By Connor Gilbert The Spokesman-Review

Following the longest offseason in recent memory, Gonzaga baseball is in familiar territory: contender in an ultracompetitive West Coast Conference and looking down the barrel of a bruising schedule that could elevate or complicate its larger aspirations.

It almost feels like a do-over of last spring – and in many ways, it is. With 26 returners on a 42-man roster and experience all over the field, coach Mark Machtolf said the confidence is palpable for a team that’s been on the brink of a Super Regional breakout for years.

GU has finished first or second in the WCC in six of the past seven seasons and eight of the past 11, but its last NCAA regional was in 2018.

“This year we’re an older team, which I think is going to be helpful,” said Machtolf, going on his 18th year at the helm. “We’ve got a lot of kids that have been in our program for four or five years. That’s always gonna help you win games in the long run.”

Especially because those on last year’s Zags team remember humbling moments. After coming out the gate with an aggressive schedule and wins over Oregon State and New Mexico in the first weekend, GU struggled to find run support when pitchers were rolling as the season stretched on. A four-game sweep at No. 7 Arkansas and 1-2 series loss at South Alabama diluted the preseason’s optimism.

Sure enough though, a split series against a top-30 CSUN team followed by 15-3 blasting of Washington State were encouraging signs that everything could mesh with time. But that WSU game, when the Zags racked up 15 hits , would be the last game of the season after spring competition was suspended. As a result, GU finished with a 6-10 record and no conference games played, tied for 173rd in DI in total runs.

It’s been 11 months and Machtolf and his Bulldogs are ready to run it back with practically the same core group, the ultimate goal unchanged.

“I think (the long offseason) built our team chemistry,” said preseason All-WCC infielder Ernie Yake, who turned down an offer from the Chicago White Sox last summer after leading the team in hits (22) and runs (16) in 2020. “Everyone wants to come back for the sole purpose of winning a championship. And I think we’ve got a good chance to do that.”

Yake has a case for best returning player in the conference – a hypercoordinated defender who hasn’t flinched at what’s required of batting at the top of the order. Ranked as the No. 23 shortstop in the country by D1Baseball.com, he’s only struck out 38 times in 526 at-bats at GU.

Other notable position returners include 2019 All-WCC selections Brett Harris and Guthrie Morrison, joined by Wofford grad transfer Andrew Orzel, who batted .272/.371/.381 in 162 starts with 99 RBIs and 42 stolen bases in his career there. Power-hitting fifth-year senior Ryan Sullivan and junior Tyler Rando, who led the team in batting average in 2020, both turned down professional options to return as well.

The on-field personnel is more fluid and nebulous than it’s ever been, Yake said, and that’s a good thing.

“I just think that there’s so many ways that the lineup can go, and a lot of guys can move around the field and play different positions,” he said. “… I think it’s just kind of a team thing. We just believe in each other.”

The losses of starting pitchers Mac Lardner and Nick Trogrlic-Iverson over the summer to the professional ranks hurt. But Machtolf feels that those Friday-Saturday roles are in good hands with preseason all-conference senior right-hander Alek Jacob and rising sophomore Gabriel Hughes.

Jacob, a preseason all-conference pick for the third year in a row, admitted that he didn’t meet his expectations in 2020, when he struck out 29 batters in four starts but finished 1-1 with an 3.86 ERA. Since then, the North Central High product added a cutter to his arsenal, and said he feels recent rule changes regarding windups will give his sidearm motion more latitude on the mound.

“I can have more variety in my deliveries to keep hitters off-balance,” he said.

Hughes finished last spring with a 0.77 ERA in 11⅔ innings, largely thanks to a 95 mph fastball and a potent slider. He found some success at the plate, too, with five hits, five runs scored, four RBIs and a home run.

“Hughes, along with a couple other (young pitchers), really used that quarantine period, and they made some big jumps,” Zags pitching coach Brandon Harmon said. “I mean, Gabriel’s a premium arm that is going to project next year in that 2022 draft as being a high-level pro prospect, so we’re thrilled about him.”

But just like last spring, GU’s staff will be tested early and often. After kicking the season off with a multiteam event in Surprise, Arizona, against Oregon State, New Mexico and Kansas State (twice), they’re set for a four-game series starting Feb. 25 with Dallas Baptist.

Two weeks later, two more series with ranked teams in No. 3 Texas Tech and 10th-ranked TCU over six games may be the toughest opponents they face all year. Matchups with Pac-12 opponents in Washington State, Washington, Oregon and a rematch with OSU pepper the gaps in WCC play throughout March and April.

“We’re excited for those big series,” Harris said, “because we think we can go into TCU and take two out of three from them, or go to (Dallas Baptist) and take three out of four from them.

“Our confidence is a big game changer.”

But conference play could also have national implications.

Pepperdine’s ascent over the shortened spring – when it was ranked as high as 14th in the nation – helped earn six first-place votes in the WCC preseason coaches poll, putting the Bulldogs in second with two first-place votes. The Waves return all but one player from 2020 and are scheduled to play No. 2 UCLA multiple times this spring.

“With those usual suspects, it’s going to come down to one or two games,” Harmon said. “This year more than ever … you’ve got to win in the regular season.

“You don’t get a do-over for that four-team conference tournament.”

GU is set to square off with New Mexico to kick off the season on Friday in Surprise, Arizona.

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