WSU baseball: Tourney chances grow stronger

WITH A 10-2 WIN over Oregon Monday, the Cougar baseball team completed a three-game sweep that puts them in sole possession of second place in the Pac-10, just two games behind the nation's No. 2-ranked team, Arizona State. With six Pac-10 games left – three at Oregon State and three in Pullman against streaking Washington – WSU now fully controls its destiny when it comes to the NCAA tourney.

There are too many variables to draw definitive conclusions, but it's probably a safe bet to say if the Cougs go 4-2 over their final six Pac-10 games they'll be headed for their first appearance in the NCAA playoffs since 1990. A 3-3 split down the stretch would by no means be a killer. A 2-4 finish, though, could be asking for trouble.

There's a little breathing room immediately behind the Cougs in the standings. Third-place UCLA, which is 1 ½ games behind WSU, has only three games left and all are at powerhouse Arizona State.

The Cougars -- 25-20 overall and 14-7 in the Pac-10 -- don't figure to catch the Sun Devils for the top spot. While the Devils have six conference games remaining too, all six are at home and three are against the last-place Ducks.

Moreover, the Cougars have a tough road ahead. They must travel to Corvallis where the Beavs – ranked 25th in the nation last week – will be looking to reestablish their NCAA tourney credentials after dropping two to the Huskies in Seattle over the weekend. In addition, the Cougs follow that series with a three-game set against a Husky team that is on fire, having now won eight of their last nine conference games to climb into a fourth-place tie with OSU, just a ½ game behind UCLA.

The Cougs and Dawgs will tangle in Pullman on May 22-23-24 with tourney implications potentially hanging in the balance for both.

The Pac-10 is usually a lock for four invites -- and sometimes five, like last year -- to the 64-team NCAA tournament. But this season only ASU has been consistently ranked in the Top 25 so there is speculation the Pac-10 may only get three invitations.

That puts the home stretch of the regular season into nail-biting status for the Cougs, Beavs Huskies and Bruins. Plus there's a USC team -- one game under .500 both overall and in the Pac-10 -- that could sneak into contention with a strong finish against Stanford and Cal.

UCLA could be in the most precarious situation of all the tourney contenders. The Bruins are just a ½ game up on OSU and UW, and ASU is the only Pac-10 opponent they have left. Also, their overall record of 24-24 isn't likely to turn heads on the selection committee.

* The Cougs take on Portland tomorrow (Tuesday) and again Wednesday before heading down to Corvallis on Friday. They'll swing up to Spokane on May 19 for a make-up game with Gonzaga and then head home to close things out with the Huskies over the Memorial Day weekend.

* With a little rest between their OSU and UW series', the Cougars have to like their chances, because they have three solid starters in Matt Way, Chad Arnold and David Stilley and two stellar relievers in Seth Harvey and Jeremy Johnson.

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