SENIOR LEFTY MATT WAY
NORMAN, Okla. -- It is tempting, of course, to blame Washington State’s incredible collapse -- or, depending on your perspective, Arkansas’ incredible rally -- on post-season pedigree. The Razorbacks are playing in the NCAA baseball regionals for the eighth consecutive year. The Cougars are playing in regionals for the first time in 19 years. Experience won out in the end, right?
Oh, if only it was that simple. If only BASEBALL was that simple.
Bottom line: The Cougars lost to a team that started four freshmen to their one. WSU left 11 men on base, including five at third base. The Cougar relief pitcher who imploded in the eighth inning is a redshirt junior. The Razorback right fielder who almost certainly prevented a lopsided WSU victory by making a miraculous catch in the seventh inning is a freshman.
All that is history. The Cougars have less than 24 hours to recover mentally and physically from Friday’s bizarre 10-3 loss to Arkansas, because one more loss at the Norman Regional ends WSU’s season. Washington State plays Saturday at 11 a.m. PDT against unranked Wichita State, who lost to No. 9-ranked Oklahoma in the late game Friday.
The 24th-ranked Cougars have demonstrated uncommon resiliency this season, but they’ll have to dig even deeper into their fire-and-brimstone war chest if they are to rebound from Friday’s disaster.
To summarize: WSU spotted Arkansas a run in the first inning, then opened the third inning with four straight singles to take a 2-1 lead. The Cougars expanded their lead to 3-1 when Shea Vucinich led off the seventh with a triple and scored, but WSU left the bases loaded that inning when right fielder Jarrod McKinney made a spectacular, diving catch of a slicing Matt Fanelli drive that carried to the warning track.
“If we don’t catch that ball,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said, “they’re going to score three runs, we’re down 6-1 and it’s probably over.”
Instead, Arkansas was very much alive, and WSU pitching standout Matt Way did not go back out for the seventh inning due to tightness in his left (throwing) forearm. Freshman Adam Conley continued his excellent relief work of late by throwing a 1-2-3 seventh, but when Ben Tschepikow doubled down the right-field line on Conley’s first pitch in the eighth, the Cougars did the sensible thing and brought in relief ace Jeremy Johnson.
Johnson, who has rather routinely pitched two or more innings, quickly retired Arkansas batting leader Scott Lyons for out No. 1 … then endured an inning that was probably like none other in his life.
First, Andy Wilkins battled Johnson for nine pitches before lacing a 3-2 fastball to right-center for an RBI single. Wilkins moved to third on a single by freshman Bo Bigham -- who made his 10th start of the year only because Lyons’ battered pinkie prevented him from playing in the field -- and Wilkins then scored the tying urn on a perfectly executed safety suicide squeeze bunt by McKinney.
The Cougars got a break when freshman Zack Cox’s hard-hit one-hopper went right to Vucinich at shortstop. Vucinich made the long to first for the third out … only to have his high throw go off the tip of Fanelli’s mitt.
After some debate, the error was given to Vucinich. Whatever. Soon it didn’t matter, because the Razorbacks rattled off a bloop single, a bunt single, a hit batter, a double, a two-run single by Tschepikow … and then, after Johnson was mercifully pulled, Lyons hammered James Wise’s first pitch over the left-field fence for a three-run homer.
The Cougars said all the right things afterwards at the press conference (“It’s just one game” … “It’s not the first time it’s happened” … “That’s baseball”), and Johnson scored points by showing up at the media’s request. Alas, the moderator ended the press conference with no warning, so Johnson was able to escape before he was asked a question.
It was just about the only thing that went right for Johnson all afternoon.
Way struck out 10 (nine in the first four innings), boosting his season total to 124. Aaron Sele had held the WSU record of 121 since 1990. Way scattered three hits over six innings, but he threw 108 pitches and said, “I didn’t have my best stuff.” Van Horn wasn’t buying any of that. “”There’s probably not a better left-handed (college) pitcher in the country,” the veteran coach said.
Dallas Keuchel, who pitched with Way last summer for Wareham (Mass.) in the Cape Cod League, gave up nine hits in seven innings and struck out just one. Keuchel did keep the ball down, and the Cougars finished with 17 groundouts (excluding two bunts for outs).
A few dozen WSU fans were sprinkled about the crowd of 1,636 on a gorgeous afternoon at the University of Oklahoma’s Dale Mitchell Park. Mitchell, a former Sooner standout, hit .312 in the major leagues (mostly with Cleveland) from 1946-56. Most of crowd supported Arkansas, complete with periodic “Pig sooie!” chants -- a Razorback tradition. The Arkansas team made a 200-mile bus trip from Fayetteville to the regional, compared to the 1,300-mile charter plane ride for WSU. The NCAA foots the bill for post-season travel.
WSU second baseman Cody Bartlett returned to the lineup after missing most of the previous two games with a knee injury. Alex Burg, the only Cougar with regional experience (limited in both his season at Clemson), is still nursing a knee injury and did not play.
The eight runs in the eighth inning marked a season high in one inning for Arkansas and against WSU. The Razorbacks, who outhit the Cougars 10-9, started two players hitting under .200 and another who was hitting .200 until last week. Arkansas started the day ranked 274th among 288 ranked teams in NCAA Division I with a .267 batting average.
Arkansas is ranked no higher than 23rd in the three most widely publicized polls, but a college baseball writers poll pegs the Razorbacks at No. 21. WSU barely drew votes in that poll, but is ranked 24th by the Collegiate Baseball newspaper.
Saturday's Wichita State-WSU game at 11 a.m. isn't being televised but it is available via webcast live, for free, HERE. Also, KXLY 700 AM of Spokane and KQQQ 1150 AM of Pullman will also broadcast the game. The WSU radio feed is available for free at www.wsucougars.com and an electronic GameTracker is also available there at no charge.
KEEP THE BALL ROLLING:
To help keep the Cougs coming back to the post-season, WSU is encouraging alums and supporters to donate to the Athletic Director's Fund for Baseball Excellence. Click HERE to contribute.