PULLMAN -- There was no ceremony after the game. No announcement over the loudspeaker. No mention at all, actually. On Friday night, however, Donnie Marbut virtually clinched the Pac-10 Coach of the Year award when his Washington State Cougars clinched second place with a heartbeat-skipping, 6-5 win in 10 innings over Washington. Along the way, the Cougs also wrapped up a spot in the NCAA tourney.
Historically, head coaches receive too much credit when things go right and too much blame when things go wrong. It is difficult to believe, however, that Marbut's steely resolve has not been a factor in the uncommonly high number of close wins the Cougars have pulled out of the hat in the late innings.
It is Marbut who has nursed Cougar baseball back from the dead. A once-proud program fell into the depths of baseball hell before Marbut rescued it slowly but surely in recent years, culminating this spring in a fourth straight winning season that will lead to an invitation to the NCAA playoffs on Monday.
The Cougars haven’t been to baseball’s Big Dance since 1990. They hadn’t posted a winning conference record since 1995. They were 1-23 -- that’s right, 1-23 -- in the Pac-10 just four years ago in Marbut’s first season at the helm, after Marbut was promoted from assistant coach and began the arduous task of rebuilding a program that was woefully short on talent, spirit and pride.
The Cougars are 17-8 -- that’s right, 17-8 -- in, arguably, the most revered college baseball conference in the land. There is no question the Pac-10 lacks some of the might of past years, but when you’re going to finish second only to third-ranked Arizona State -- after Pac-10 coaches picked WSU to finish eighth in their preseason poll -- someone deserves a ton of credit.
Marbut is that someone, though he is quick to credit others. Marbut praises his assistant coaches constantly, and a man who is the first to admit that he is extremely demanding of his players has been delighted with their play, effort and courage.
“There’s something special about this team,” Marbut said Friday night in front of the Cougar dugout at Bailey-Brayton Field.
“They have a little something going about them. I’m just blessed to be on their team.”
Was Friday’s game won in classic fashion? Not even close. That’s one of the things that makes these Cougars special: They have a way of somehow, some way persevering.
On Friday, it took a hit batter and two walks -- the last to Michael Weber with two out and the bases loaded -- to produce the winning run. Two innings earlier, the Cougars had squandered a 2-0 lead by yielding four runs in the eighth, only to score three runs in the bottom half of the inning with the aid of an error on a routine throw, a walk and a run-scoring wild pitch.
Of course, there have been plenty of times when the Cougars have taken care of business all by their lonesome with clutch hitting, pitching and/or fielding. A team that started the season 5-11 -- including 0-4 in one-run games -- is now 29-23, including 8-2 in one-run games since that dismal beginning.
The will of a coach, not to mention the strategy of a coach, can play a huge role in tight games. Marbut is hitless all season, and he hasn’t thrown a pitch or caught a ball, but there is no question he’s one of the most valuable Cougars.
For seven innings Friday, Matt Way was about as dominant as a pitcher can be. The senior left-hander struck out a career-high 13 and gave up two singles over the first seven innings, then exited in the eighth after he tired and left fastballs up. At one point, Way struck out five straight Huskies while he was retiring the first 14 batters in order. Catcher Greg Lagreid said Way’s best pitch, a changeup with all kinds of movement, was “unreal.” Husky coach Ken Knutson called Way “a strike machine.” Marbut simply said, “He’s something special.”
Marbut, one of several folks on both sides who were not enamored with home plate Dave Perez’s strike zone, was ejected in the ninth inning after he barked at Perez once too often. “Sometimes umpires and coaches see the strike zone differently,” Marbut explained.
Closer Jeremy Johnson blew his second straight save opportunity, but he’s won both games to improve his record to 6-1. Johnson had been tied for the Pac-10 lead with nine saves before Arizona’s Jason Stoffel picked up his 10th Friday against Oregon.
With school out, the campus all but deserted and many fans headed elsewhere on Memorial Day weekend, the game drew an enthusiastic crowd of 1,549 on a warm evening. Dozens of fans were lined up at the ticket window for the first couple innings. Football coach Paul Wulff was among those in attendance. The crowd was almost three times larger than what WSU had been averaging (585), but a few miles south, Lewis-Clark State drew 5,075 on the opening night of the NAIA World Series.
The Huskies fell to 25-28 overall and 13-12 in the Pac-10 with two games left. The loss ended Washington’s long-shot post-season hopes, since the NCAA requires at-large teams to have winning records. The Huskies had won six straight in Pullman, and 14 of the last 16.
Marbut and his players praised the Huskies at length for their late uprising with the bats. Freshman Andy Bethel tied the game with a pinch-hit, two-run double in the eighth, and he tied the game a second time with a two-out, RBI single in the ninth. “That was a Cougar-Husky athletic event,” Marbut said. “That’s the way they’re supposed to be. You’ve really got to tip your hat to Washington. Down 2-nothing and Way just dealing on ’em, and they came in and didn’t care. They just kept staying with it.”
WSU leadoff hitter Garry Kuykendall banged out three hits to extend his hitting streak to 11 games. Jay Ponciano has hit safely in 11 of the last 12 games, with nine two-hit games.
Bethel’s double came on a fastball after Way misread Lagreid’s signal for a changeup. “He came out and told me,” Way said. “I went, ‘Great.’ We got the win; that’s all that matters.” With 114 strikeouts, Way is tied for second in WSU history with Aaron Sele, who fanned 114 in 1991 and 121 in 1990. Way topped John Olerud’s 1988 record for Cougar left-handers by one.