Fifth-year senior reliever Alex Hardy said he’s never been on a Washington team with a closer bond — a “family,” in his words.
NCAA tournament selections are by nature joyous affairs, yet Washington’s baseball team had some reckoning to do before they could fully embrace theirs.
The Huskies on Saturday had been three outs away from a sweep of third-ranked Stanford that would have given them, to the shock of the college baseball world, a share of the program’s first Pac-12 title since 1998.
That evaporated in a three-run ninth by the Cardinal that gave them a 6-5 victory, and gave the Huskies a temporary downer. Instead of reveling in taking two out of three from Stanford to virtually ensure a spot in the field of 64 after entering the weekend on the bubble, the Huskies couldn’t help but lament the grand opportunity that had slipped so agonizingly away.
NCAA baseball regional in Conway, S.C., UW vs. UConn, 9 a.m., ESPN3
“I woke up Sunday and I felt awful,” head coach Lindsay Meggs said. “I mean, I felt bad. I felt bad for our guys because we had a chance to do something that no one has done around here for a long time.
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“Then I woke up (Monday) morning, and I knew what was going to happen this morning, and I felt a heck of a lot better.”
What happened Monday was that the Huskies officially earned their NCAA bid, garnering a No. 3 seed in the regional hosted by Coastal Carolina in Conway, S.C.
The whooping and hollering when their name was called was like an official exorcism of the Stanford hangover.
“It was heartbreaking to lose that game,’’ said senior shortstop Levi Jordan. “But about 24 hours later, it’s out of your system and we’re ready, especially now that we’re in the postseason, to flush it, move on and prepare for the regional.”
Washington opens play on Friday against No. 2 seed Connecticut, while top-seeded Coastal Carolina, which won the national title two years ago, faces No. 4 LIU Brooklyn.
What’s energizing for the Huskies is that they still have a chance to take the program to heights it has never reached. This is the third regional in the past five years under Meggs, and the 11th postseason bid in program history. Yet they have never made it to the hallowed ground in Omaha, site of the College World Series. In fact, they’ve never made it as far as a Super Regional, and Meggs is eager for that breakthrough.
“I think it would validate everything we talk about every day,’’ he said. “And I think it would be great for Seattle, and the college baseball community in the state of Washington and particularly in Seattle.
“I’ve been places before where you’ve taken that next step and it’s changed the entire culture. I think it would be a really neat thing for us.”
But is this the Huskies’ team that can accomplish what none other has done, not even during the Tim Lincecum years? Their unimposing overall record (30-23) and lackluster RPI (No. 63) would seem to indicate no. But if you dig deeper, there are reasons for hope.
The Huskies are peaking at the right time, winning their last five Pac-12 series. They’re healthier than they’ve been all year, after being ravished by injuries earlier in the season. But the Huskies believe their secret weapon is an esprit de corps that has taken hold during an at-times trying season.
The turning point, Jordan believes, came after a loss to a weak Washington State team in late April that dropped them to .500 overall at 19-19. The next day, after trailing by four, they rallied to win, 6-5, and went 11-4 down the stretch.
At the guidance of senior leaders, the Huskies changed their focus.
“I think we came together as a team and said, ‘This is kind of our last ride for some of these guys. It would be great to stop worrying about what everyone else is talking about so much and just focus in on our group and having each other’s backs, instead of doing it for the rankings, all the nonsense going on around us,’” said Jordan.
Fifth-year senior reliever Alex Hardy said he’s never been on a Husky team with a closer bond — a “family,” in his words.
That sentiment can be just hot air, in some cases, but the Huskies are embodying it. When senior outfielder K.J. Brady’s mom died in an automobile accident last month, the team rallied around him. Twenty-nine of the 35 players attended a memorial for her in Marysville.
“I had never met K.J.’s mom, but the fact such a dramatic event happened to him and his family, and how much he means to us, that is family,” Hardy said. “For us to show up to that and be part of that, it just showed it’s bigger than just the game.”
This weekend, the games will be plenty big for the Huskies in the context of an opportunity for unprecedented achievement. And they enter with the confidence that comes from having defeated two highly ranked teams this year, Oregon State and Stanford, currently sitting No. 2 and 3 in most polls.
“Coach always talks about being hot at the right time,” Hardy said. “Right now, that is us. I think whoever plays us, we’re feeling pretty good right now.”
Consider the agonizing Stanford loss fully flushed.