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Gonzaga University Athletics
Sports >  Gonzaga athletics

John Blanchette: Gonzaga’s NCAA chances hinge on the arms of everyone not named Alek Jacob

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

One of baseball’s time-honored strategies is “setting up the pitching staff for the postseason,” a 5-minute planning exercise that somehow took on splitting-the-atom implications – mostly because writers and talkers needed filler between the clinching of the pennant and the first at-bat of the playoffs.

That’s on the major league level.

In college baseball, it remains a 5-minute exercise. Or less.

For Gonzaga’s foray into the NCAA Tournament this weekend, you can boil it down to seven words:

Alek Jacob and all hands on deck.

The Bulldogs will ride their homegrown ace into Friday night’s first-round game with LSU in the Eugene Regional, as they have for every weekend series for two months.

Everything else is written in pencil, if at all.

The basketball tournament has its win-or-go-home urgency. The baseball regionals are more forgiving, but not much. It’s double elimination, but trying to win your way back from a loss immediately puts a strain on pitching rarely emulated in the regular season – short rest, appearances back to back to back. There’s a reason that since 2014, only five teams have survived losing in the first game of regionals – and four of those were playing at home.

“You do everything you can,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Machtolf said, “to win those first two games.”

This will be more challenging for the Zags, seeing as their No. 2 starter is unavailable.

Gabriel Hughes, a freshman with a power arm – and bat – who would take turns at first base and designated hitter between pitching starts, has been sidelined since breaking a hand April 27 against Washington State.

“He swung at a ball the first inning and cracked his knuckle,” Gonzaga pitching coach Brandon Harmon said. “We were optimistic we might get him back, but he had a scan last week and the healing level is just not there yet. He’s going to be a premium draft pick. You’re not going to risk hurting anybody, but especially a guy like that you’re going to be ultraconservative with.”

Another freshman, William Kempner, became the Saturday starter after Hughes’ injury, with Alec Gomez settling in at No. 3. But like the batter’s box chalk, that’s only an outline that can get scuffed out by the second inning.

“I told our guys, Alek is going to get the ball on Friday and after that it’s kind of to be determined,” Harmon said. “You’ve got to put the idea that ‘my role has been this or that’ aside and just be ready. It’s going to be who is going to give us the best shot to win the day, win the inning – to win against this batter.”

But that philosophy has been in place all season, really.

Even with Jacob – the North Central grad whose delivery seems to originate out near Otis Orchards, with a sweep-the-leg finish. He might have been the West Coast Conference Pitcher of the Year with a no-hitter against Pepperdine in his resume, but that didn’t stop Machtolf and Harmon from using him as a closer for three weeks in March.

“We hit a little stretch where we were not throwing the ball well out of the bullpen so we asked him to right the ship for us back there,” Harmon said. “And like a great teammate, he did.

“If you look at his numbers (in 2019), he impacted 80% of our wins in kind of a Swiss army role – starting, closing, extending out. The one thing we’ve always had is a guy on the back end you could count on, and him doing that gave young guys a chance to work through some things and step up.”

And there are lots of kids.

Of the 11 pitchers who have worked 98% of GU’s innings, six are freshmen and another is in his first year in the program. One, Brody Jessee, had his fastball clocked at 99 mph at Washington last month.

Another of intrigue is Trystan Vrieling from Kennewick, a 6-foot-4 right-hander who since Gonzaga’s COVID-19 pause has an earned-run average of 0.82 with 11 strikeouts and just a single walk. He had back-to-back saves against San Francisco but has stretched out to five innings in other appearances.

“I think he’s our X-factor,” Harmon said. “We want to maximize the positions we can put him in and get him into the most important parts of games.”

All that youth might make a coach nervous with the stakes ramped up. But those same freshmen pitched important innings in Gonzaga’s swing through Texas Tech and TCU in March “where there were a lot of fans and you felt your blood pressure go up,” Harmon said.

“Those were big games and fun. I think maybe we’ve played tight the last couple of weeks chasing that host-site possibility. Now it’s time to just go toe-to-toe and have some fun.”

And, hey – they’ve set themselves up for it.

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