Well, that certainly wasn't how Donnie Marbut drew it up. But baseball players are fond of saying that the game has a way of humbling you, and the Cougars surely experienced that last weekend.
Coming off a rather stunning series win against the top ranked Sun Devils that propelled them into the national rankings for the first time since early in the season, the Cougs had high hopes as they traveled to Tucson to take on Arizona. The straight losses later -- the final one of the kick-in-the-nuts variety as the Wildcats got to WSU's best pitcher, closer Adam Conley, for four runs and a win in the bottom of the ninth -- the Cougs headed back to Pullman wondering what went wrong.
It's not like there's some shame in losing to Arizona; the Wildcats were ranked No. 21 before the weekend. But it's a certainty the team was hoping for better result. It's tough to pinpoint exactly what happened, as each game had a distinctly different personality.
Friday's game was a duel of No. 1 starters, as Chad Arnold and Arizona's Kurt Heyer combined to throw all but one out of the game. Arnold gave up four runs in the first three innings, but settled down to allow just one run over his final five (Arizona didn't bat in the bottom of the ninth). Heyer, meanwhile, dominated the WSU bats with 14 strikeouts against just one walk before giving way to Augey Bill who squelched the final WSU rally in the 9th with -- surprise! -- a strikeout to seal the 5-3 win.
Most troubling about Stilley's outing was that he had exactly zero strikeouts in 20 batters faced. He's never been a strikeout artist, but he was at 6.48 strikeouts per 9 innings last year, normal for a pitch-to-contact kind of guy. This year? Just 2.61 K/9. That's an enormous drop off, even given the small sample size of just four starts and about 14 innings total. Very few pitchers can survive that many balls being put into play.
Sunday's game was one of those they'll look back on with regret. The Cougar bats finally came alive (and got some help from Arizona's defensive miscues), and WSU took an 11-8 lead into the bottom of the ninth. Conley, who had not pitched yet in the series, had already pitched two innings in relief. It's not uncommon for him to pitch more than one inning, so that wasn't a big deal. But he gave up a single, then another single which essentially turned into a triple when the right fielder made an error on the play. That guy would score on an RBI groundout.
So, instead of having one run in and two outs -- the grounder likely would have been a double play -- there were now two runs in and one out. The next guy walked, the next guy lines out, but instead of being the end of the game, Arizona rallies. Three consecutive singles later, the game is over.
Think about that: Arizona scored four runs without the benefit of one extra-base hit, and instead of heading back north with one win -- not the worst scenario in the world when traveling to Arizona -- they return home emptyhanded.
Of course, in baseball, one has to be careful of overreacting. And the more I've looked at this weekend, the more I'm convinced that a lot of this just has to do with where the games were played.
The Cougs are a defense and small-ball oriented team without a lot of sluggers and with a lot of pitch-to-contact throwers. Well, when you're playing in the dry, warm air of Tucson, you better bring some offense, and the Cougs simply aren't built to win that way. Additionally, the favorable hitting environment somewhat negates the defensive advantage they have over many of their opponents.
It just sure would have been nice to get that last game, which would have made the weekend ... well, if not a success, at least tolerable.
The Cougs now look forward to hosting No. 22 Oregon State -- no rest for the weary in the Pac-10, which is basically the opposite of the basketball league in terms of competition -- this weekend for three games. The good news is that WSU has been much better at home, and we'll have a complete preview later this week.
In the meantime, check out Marbut's weekly teleconference. Audio graciously provided by the WSU Sports Information Department.