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Gonzaga baseball, in midst of impressive start, set to host underperforming Washington State

April 4, 2022 Updated Tue., April 5, 2022 at 10:50 a.m.

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

Ahead of their midseason meeting, the two Division I baseball programs in Eastern Washington have had contrasting starts to the year.

The Gonzaga Bulldogs feel like they’re on schedule. They expected to field a high-level postseason contender, and they look the part so far. GU (18-7) has picked up several impressive wins over NCAA Tournament regulars, and put together a nine-game winning streak last month.

Ranked 15th in the Baseball America Collegiate poll, the Zags have reason to be encouraged about the back half of their 2022 campaign.

“I’m happy with where the team is now, but I do know that we have to continue to improve to get where we’re trying to go,” 19th-year Bulldogs coach Mark Machtolf said.

“Isn’t everybody shooting to go to Omaha? That’s what we’re trying to do ultimately.”

Down on the Palouse, optimism has been a bit harder to come by. The Washington State Cougars (10-17), who also came into this season toting expectations, absorbed 10 consecutive losses – eight on the road and three decided by one run – before snapping the skid with a 5-4 walk-off win over Utah on Sunday.

“We really, really needed that,” third-year WSU coach Brian Green said. “We’d been scuffling, obviously.

“Any time you can get a walk-off and any time you can score multiple runs late, the belief factor is huge.”

The Cougs are hoping to parlay their ninth-inning rally into a midseason uptick and the Zags are looking to stay the course when the nonconference foes square off at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Patterson Baseball Complex.

“Any time we play against each other, it’s always a dogfight,” Machtolf said.

Since 2000, WSU holds a 38-37 edge in the series. But GU is on a three-game winning streak and has won 13 of the last 17 against its rivals from 80 miles south.

The 311th all-time meeting between the programs will pit a talented GU pitching staff against a veteran Coug lineup, which has had an underwhelming start to the year but showed signs of its productive potential last weekend versus the Utes.

The Zags rank 35th in the nation with a combined 3.85 ERA. As a staff, they punch out 10.4 batters per nine innings – the No. 30 average in D-I. GU is also a top-80 team nationally in walks (3.81) and hits (8.9) allowed per nine innings.

Machtolf isn’t surprised by the pitching efficiency.

“When you’re trying to put together a team, if you have concerns but you can say, ‘I think our pitching staff’s going to be really solid,’ then that’s a good place to start,” he said. “We always felt our pitching staff was going to be really solid, and it has been. … Just quality starting pitching and we have some relievers who have been big-time consistent.”

With Gonzaga’s two best hitters drafted – third baseman Brett Harris (Oakland A’s) and shortstop Ernie Yake (Minnesota Twins – and a host of newcomers, Machtolf figured the offense would be a “work in progress.”

“It’s kind of exactly what’s been happening,” he said.

Three Zag underclassmen are hitting .300 or better to lead a new-look offense. Fourth-year sophomore outfielder Grayson Sterling, a Boise native, paces the lineup at .317. GU has seven home runs this season and is 261st nationally in walks drawn, and 206th in on-base percentage. One bright spot is balance. Eight Bulldogs have driven in 10 or more runs and six have clubbed five or more doubles.

“It does seem like every time we show up a new guy is key to our winning,” he said of the offense. “I think the best teams have a little more of a consistent punch.

“Our numbers aren’t inflated by any stretch, but they’re legit because we played such good people in nonconference and our conference is very good this year,” Machtolf added.

GU, which began its season with 21 of its first 22 games on the road, swept No. 6 Oklahoma State and has faced college baseball notables such as Oregon State, Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton and Oregon, among others.

WSU lost prolific-hitting first baseman Kyle Manzardo to the Tampa Bay Rays and slugger Tristan Peterson graduated, but the Cougs were predicting offensive stability after returning six experienced contributors from a 2021 outfit that ranked in the upper echelons nationally in batting average and doubles.

WSU is batting .240 on the year (262nd nationally), with just one player over .300 – third baseman Jack Smith (.348). Five regulars are hitting under .250. Green has been tinkering with the lineup persistently in recent weeks.

“I’ve told the guys, ‘Look, until we start hitting, I’m going to keep switching it up,’ ” he said Friday after WSU recorded 15 hits and surged in the ninth in a 10-9 loss to Utah.

“We’re not going to put up 15 hits a game, but we’re talented enough to do that. We’ve certainly pressed. We had our first winning season in five, six years (last year) and all of a sudden there’s a little more expectations, in terms of let’s take that next step. I put that on the guys and it’s been a challenge for all of us. I think a lot of the guys have pressed and I think they’d tell you that.”

WSU’s staff features five new faces in important roles, and its ERA sits at a middling 5.41 as the team’s first-year arms continue to transition from junior colleges to the Pac-12. Limiting walks is an emphasis for the Cougars, who allow more than five of them per game and rank 235th nationally in that statistic.

Results have been mixed for the weekend starters, all three of whom will rest Tuesday ahead of the Cougars’ series at Arizona.

“We got a really tough road trip coming up. Every week in the Pac is, but (Sunday’s win) is going to give us some confidence,” Green said.

Starters weren’t announced by either school ahead of the WSU/GU game. The Zags’ three top arms all worked six-plus innings in last weekend’s series versus Pepperdine.

“We’re going to do what we feel we need to win without hurting our chances to play well next weekend in our conference,” Machtolf said. “It really is just next man up and who we think matches up well with WSU.”

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