SHEA VUCINICH: Towering triple in Sunday win
PULLMAN -- It has been said that it is better to be lucky than good. If so, it is even better to be lucky AND good. Case in point: The Washington State baseball team. The Cougars came from behind to win for the 16th time Sunday, and a lethal mix of skill and luck ultimately led to victory for the umpteenth time.
Some teams simply have a knack for pulling out a victory from the jaws of defeat, and the Cougars proved they are one of those teams yet again Sunday in a 10-5 triumph over Washington.
“You never know when it’s going to happen,” sophomore shortstop Shea Vucinich said, “but it’s going to happen.”
The Cougars, after falling behind 5-1 early, were still trailing 5-3 with two out in the sixth when Husky freshman Andrew Kittredge drilled Vucinich in the leg with a fastball. That was luck; the three straight singles that followed, producing three runs, was skill.
An inning later, clinging to a precarious 6-5 lead, Jared Prince singled with one out. Michael Weber followed with a sharply hit single to right field, moving Prince to second -- whereupon he ran right through the “stop” sign of head coach/third-base coach Donnie Marbut and should have been thrown out from here to Colfax by strong-armed right fielder Kyle Conley.
As luck would have it, Prince slid in safely at third after the throw by Conley -- perhaps caught by surprise -- tailed off-target. Vucinich then stepped to the plate, fouled off two bunt attempts to fall behind 0-2 -- then crushed a grooved fastball from Geoff Brown for a towering triple high off the wall in left-center. Two runs came in, two more would quickly follow, and dem Dawgs were done.
Was Vucinich lucky Brown missed his spot horribly with an 0-2 pitch? Absolutely. Was Vucinich skilled, poised and gutsy enough to take advantage of Brown’s mistake? Absolutely.
Marbut likes to say, “Our motto is ‘We,’ not ‘Me.’” Corny, but effective -- and accurate.
“Our kids have that never-say-die attitude,” Marbut said.
No kidding. That’s helps explain how a team picked to finish eighth in the Pac-10 in the preseason coaches poll wound up second and headed to the NCAA playoffs for the first time in 19 years.
That’s how a team ranked 251st in hitting and 203rd in scoring in the latest NCAA Division I stats outhit Washington 32-22 and outscored the Huskies 23-11 to sweep a three-game series from Washington in Pullman for the first time in 30 years.
Of course, it helped when five relievers combined on 6 1/3 innings of shutout ball Sunday. That seems a little much to ask even of a pitching staff that ranks 31st in earned run average, 39th in least walks per nine innings and 67th in strikeouts per nine innings.
Don’t be surprised if the Cougars are ranked in the Top 25 in at least one of the myriad of college baseball polls Monday. That’s the day the Cougars will learn their post-season destination. Wherever the Cougars are headed, they promise not to mess with their formula for success.
“There’s something different about this team … let’s just hope it keeps going,” Vucinich said.
Pairings and seedings for the NCAA regionals will be announced Monday morning at 9:30 PT on ESPN. The 64-team field consists of 16 double-elimination regionals at the home fields of the host teams. Marbut, purely on a hunch, predicted his team will head to Austin, Texas, or Norman, Okla. Each regional champion must play and win a minimum three games Friday through Monday to advance to one of the eight Super Regionals, which are best-of-three affairs at the home fields of host teams. The eight Super Regionals champs advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. WSU played in the CWS in 1950, 1956, 1965 and 1976.
Senior Day was a class event at Bailey-Brayton Field. The Huskies’ six seniors were introduced prior to the six Cougars who were honored, and several Cougar fans joined Husky fans in according the Washington players standing ovations. Glass-encased jerseys were presented to WSU’s Prince, Lagreid, Matt Way, Alex Burg, Jeremy Johnson and injured Ross Humes. The latter two have a year of eligibility left, but Marbut said he expects Johnson to turn pro and Humes may not return for a fifth year.
More class: Prince ran out to right field for the start of the ninth inning, then Marbut sent Riley Tubbs out to right so Prince could return to the dugout to a standing ovation. “Jared, he is THE Coug,” Vucinich said. “I came here last year -- he was a junior last year -- and he picks up the freshmen and kind of helps them grow. He spent a lot of time with me last year.”
Burg, a .355 hitter sidelined the past month with a knee injury, was intentionally walked when he pinch-hit in the seventh inning. Marbut said Burg, a first baseman-catcher, and second baseman Cody Bartlett are “day-to-day” for regionals. Bartlett dinged a knee Saturday.
Jay Ponciano continues to handle most of the catching duties, even though Lagreid and Marbut say Lagreid’s throwing arm is healthy again. Ponciano mashed his second home run in as many days Sunday, this one a pull shot 400-plus feet to right in the third inning. “I got most of that one,” Ponciano said with an enormous smile. “He’s been out MVP the last four or five weeks,” Marbut said.
David Stilley was banged around and chased early from his third straight start, but the sun and wind factored into some plays not being made behind the talented freshman. “Whenever he pitches next, he’ll pitch well, there’s no doubt in my mind,” Marbut said. The Cougars need Stilley and Lagreid (1-for-17 the past four games) to return to form.
The Cougars dew 1,313 Sunday and 4,633 for the weekend. WSU had been averaging just 585 fans per home game, even though the Cougars won a school-record 21 home games and lost just six.
The 31-23 Cougars have won 30 or more games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1993-94. The 19-8 conference record is WSU’s best since the 1990 squad went 19-5 in the old Pac-10 North.
The Huskies lost their last five games to finish 25-30 overall and 13-14 in the Pac-10. Conley, who said he will bypass his senior year to turn pro, went 0-for-14 with eight strikeouts over the weekend and failed to break a tie with Ed Erickson for the school record of 42 career homers.