Washington State was swept in early-season three-game series at Arkansas.
Into the great unknown of the NCAA baseball tournament — a place where Oregon State and Fresno State came out of nowhere to win recent championships — Washington State ventures Friday with its first appearance in 19 years in the postseason.
The Cougars (31-23) are hoping to minimize any awe they might be feeling with the fact they’ve not only met their first-game opponent, Arkansas (34-22), three times, but also played a series last year at the ballpark at Oklahoma that’s hosting this NCAA regional.
“We’re going to where we’ve been,” said WSU coach Donnie Marbut. “It won’t be unfamiliar.”
The familiarity with Arkansas comes from a season-opening series in Fayetteville swept by the Razorbacks, 4-2, 7-5 (in 10 innings) and 4-3. The Cougars think they’re a different team since, having morphed through several injuries to develop depth and a winning attitude.
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“We pitched pretty good, we defended OK,” Marbut says. “We just didn’t swing the bat down there.”
The opener is expected to feature a couple of pitchers who know each other well: WSU’s regular series-opening starter, left-hander Matt Way, and Arkansas’ Dallas Keuchel. The two were teammates for Wareham, Mass., last summer in the Cape Cod League.
“It was a pretty eventful summer with Dallas,” says Way. “It was a lot of fun.”
The two met Feb. 20 at Arkansas, and Way was done in by a two-run homer by Ben Tschepikow, who last week was named to the SEC all-tournament team. But Way doesn’t put a lot of stock in that first outing.
“I had only thrown a few live appearances in practice,” Way said. “I wasn’t as mature on the mound.”
If the Cougars go on to meet Oklahoma in the double-elimination event, they’ll also know the Sooners. A week after that Arkansas series, WSU hosted Oklahoma and split four games, after playing a 2008 series in Norman.
In the second game Friday, the lowest-seeded (fourth) team of the regional, Wichita State, faces top seed Oklahoma. The two losers meet Saturday in an elimination game at 11 a.m. (PDT), with the winners meeting at 5 p.m. One team eventually advances to a super-regional next weekend.
Some recent trends don’t favor the Razorbacks, although they competed in an SEC that sent eight teams to the NCAA tournament, as opposed to the Pac-10’s three. Arkansas has lost 10 of its past 13, albeit 11 of them against ranked teams. Keuchel, with a 7-3 record and 4.14 earned-run average, hasn’t won since May 2.
The Razorbacks toppled then-top-ranked Arizona State twice in early April and were ranked No. 1 briefly by Collegiate Baseball.
• The game can be heard at 11 a.m. (PDT) over www.wsucougars.com or in Eastern Washington on ESPN 700 in Spokane.
• Thursday, at a noon workout, the Cougars were to test the readiness of Alex Burg and Cody Bartlett, each nursing knee problems. Burg, who might play first base, pinch-hit last weekend against Washington. Bartlett, a second baseman, got hurt against the Huskies.
• Teams bring a 25-man roster to the regionals.
• Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn has coached three College World Series teams, two at Nebraska and one with the Razorbacks.
• The Razorbacks finished fourth in the SEC West with a 14-15 record.
• Marbut indicated WSU would follow its recent pitching rotation, succeeding Way with Kennewick sophomore right-hander Chad Arnold and David Stilley, a redshirt freshman lefty from Central Kitsap High.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org