COUGS' QUEST BEGINS AT BAUM STADIUM
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Washington State’s quest for Omaha begins here tomorrow, and both optimists and pessimists can offer good arguments on how far the Cougars will go. On the glass half-full side of the equation, there are five legitimate, sure-fire reasons why Washington State will win the Fayetteville Regional.
Why should Cougar fans be prepared to make travel plans to a best-of-three NCAA Super Regional next week?
1) The Cougars have an impressive blend of talent, experience and guts -- not necessarily in that order. WSU hits, pitches, fields and runs well. Not spectacularly if you consider WSU’s rank in national and Pac-10 stats, but well. Seniors Michael Weber, Matt Fanelli and Connor Lambert are having career years. They’ve played key roles in WSU’s you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me 18 come-from behind wins.
2) WSU opened the 2009 season with a three-game series at Arkansas’ Baum Stadium last year, so they are familiar with their surroundings. Baseball players are creatures of habit, so returning to Baum is somewhat comforting.
3) The Cougars are 2-1 against Arizona State, the top seed in the NCAA tournament. WSU finished third in the Pac-10, which sent eight teams to the NCAA’s. Week after week, the Cougars have faced the upper crust of college baseball, and they’ve usually come out on top.
4) Double plays are invaluable rally killers, and WSU has turned 74 of ’em -- second in the nation to the 80 of Southern Miss.
5) Cougar coaches and players claim they’re more focused on winning regionals this year than last, when some players may have been satisfied with WSU just making it to regionals for the first time in 19 years. Donnie Marbut is an excellent coach, recruiter and motivator, and this weekend presents a great opportunity to prove it on a national stage.
SO FAR, SO good. But a realistic view of the outlook for this weekend also means considering some logical roadblocks to WSU’s bid for a Super Regionals berth.
1) Arkansas (40-18), ranked 15th in the nation, has two projected first-round draft picks and plays before some of the largest and rowdiest crowds in college baseball. The Razorbacks have lost seven of their past nine games, but several top players seem to be returning to health just in time for regionals.
2) Third-seeded Kansas State (36-20), WSU’s first-round foe at 5:05 p.m. PDT Friday, has a .323 batting average and .427 on-base percentage. WSU’s corresponding numbers are .293 and .375. K-State will start sophomore left-hander Kyle Hunter (9-2, 4.50) against WSU junior right-hander Chad Arnold (5-3, 3.47). K-State’s bullpen has been strong.
3) Superstars often make the difference when elite teams play their own kind, and the Cougars have no superstars. Arkansas third baseman Zack Cox leads the Southeastern Conference with a .432 batting average and is expected to be one of the first players selected Monday in the major league draft. Kansas State center fielder Nick Martini leads the Big 12 Conference with a .416 batting average and a .507 on-base percentage. He’s reached base safely in all 56 games.
4) It is HOT down here! Temperatures in the 90’s are forecast all weekend, and the stifling humidity might impact the Cougars even more than the heat.
5) The Razorbacks are 26-8 at home. If top-seeded Arkansas and second-seeded WSU (34-20) win Friday, there could be upwards of 10,000 Arkansas fans in the stands for a Saturday night game with the Cougs. The Razorbacks have so little respect for fourth-seeded Grambling State (22-30), they’re saving No. 1 starter Drew Smyly (8-1, 2.54) for Saturday. Naturally, he’s a southpaw. Oh, and let’s not forget that WSU went 0-4 against Arkansas last year, and both teams have plenty of returning players.
“OL’ CRIMSON” made the trip to Arkansas and will there at the regionals waving o'er the Cougs. And you can see that happen on your computer…
The Razorbacks announced Thursday that all games in Fayetteville will be video streamed live with audio -- for free -- at www.arkansasrazorbacks.com. ESPN will not televise any games from Fayetteville.
The Cougars have also arranged for free audio of WSU’s regional games on www.wsucougars.com. KHTR 104.3 of Pullman is broadcasting all WSU games live. KXLX 700 AM of Spokane finalized its broadcast schedule, which has changed slightly since original plans. KXLX will carry the Friday, Saturday and (if the Cougars are still alive) Monday games, but contractural obligations with other events will prevent KXLX from broadcasting the Cougar game(s) if WSU plays Sunday.
THE NCAA pays for post-season travel, so the Cougars chartered a plane to Fayetteville. WSU flew in Wednesday, and all four teams practiced at Baum on Thursday. This is Washington State’s 16th NCAA appearance.
IT’S EASY TO see why Marbut calls Arkansas’ Baum Stadium “the best college baseball stadium in the country.” The stadium is a gorgeous red-brick facility with the size (capacity 10,737) and the look of the very best of professional minor league stadiums. Alcohol is available in the Hog Heaven suites, which foul pole to foul pole in the upper deck, and fans are welcome to bring coolers of beer or whatever to the Hog Pen grass picnic area in left field. The beer-powered hecklers are part of the fun -- or misery, depending on your perspective -- of playing at Baum. Hogs, of course, is the unofficial nickname of Arkansas sports teams.
WHAT TO SAY about Fayetteville (pop. 73,000)? It’s a typical Southern city. Lots of barbecue, chicken, heat and humidity. The energy-sapping heat tends to make people move slowly -- except at the buffet line, anyway. Fayetteville is located in the scenic northwest corner of Arkansas, about two hours east of Tulsa, Okla. Wal-Mart’s headquarters are located nearby, and free public concerts by the likes of Tim McGraw, R.E.O. Speedwagon and Barenaked Ladies were held on the Arkansas campus this week in connection with a Wal-Mart shareholders meeting. The Northwest Arkansas Naturals, the Class AA farm club of the Kansas City Royals, draw about 5,000 fans per game in nearby Springdale, Ark.