Seeing is believing with Cougar baseballers

CORVALLIS -- You know Donnie Marbut wanted to say it. Wanted to scream it. Wanted to tell it to everyone in the world. Instead, Washington State's normally brash baseball coach put a zip lock on his normally talkative lips and stopped just short of saying Sunday's heart-stopping 7-6 win at Oregon State clinched WSU's first NCAA regionals berth in 19 years.

"You'd like to think so, but that's the selection committee's decision," Marbut said in his most diplomatic tone.

OK, Coach, we'll say it for you: The Cougars are in. They're 16-8 in the Pac-10 with one week to go, solidly in second place in a conference that is down this year only when compared to years past. The Pac-10 has almost always been the best or one of the two or three best leagues for college baseball.

The Cougars won't dazzle anyone with their 28-22 overall record, so-so statistics and a roster loaded with undersized bodies. Do not, however, underestimate the size of their hearts.

The Cougars showed even more heart than usual Sunday. WSU trailed 4-0 after three innings, went ahead 6-5 in the sixth on Shea Vucinich's two-run homer, fell back into a tie the following inning, then won it in the ninth on an RBI single by improbable hero Jay Ponciano.

"This was as good a win as I've been a part of in Pullman," Marbut said. "Our guys refused to lose."

Ponciano refused to lose only after he refused to quit. Doctors told Ponciano he was done with baseball last year after his left foot continued to ache a year after surgery for two stress fractures in the ball of his foot.

Ponciano, who never played an inning his first two years in college, returned to school last fall and decided to give college ball a third and final try. He made the team, but was buried on the bench as the third-string catcher until injuries forced him into the lineup.

The results have been spectacular. Although Ponciano admits he's even smaller than his listed 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds, he's hitting .348 with two home runs and 15 RBIs in 29 games (15 starts).

"Every day, I'm just thankful for another chance of getting to play," Ponciano said.

"He's been our MVP the last couple weeks," Marbut said. "I don't know what other teams around the country would be doing if they had to use (start) their third catcher."

Sophomore second baseman Cody Bartlett, the man who scored the winning run, is just as unlikely a hero as Ponciano. Generously listed at 5-7 and 165 pounds, Bartlett is hitting just .154 in Pac-10 play, but he beat out an infield single deep in the hole to lead off the ninth, advanced to second on Garry Kuykendall's perfect sacrifice bunt and slid home safely on Ponciano's bloop single to shallow center.

The scrappy Bartlett remained focused even after he went out all three other times up despite the fact that he absolutely ripped the ball in all three of those at bats.

"Cody grew up this weekend," Marbut said.

So many Cougars have grown as players this season.

The team's No. 1 hitter, senior Greg Lagreid, never hit better than .282 in college until this season. The team's No. 1 pitcher, Matt Way, never started full-time in college until this season. The team's closer, junior Jeremy Johnson, never pitched regularly in college until this season.

Throw in the fact that last year's leading hitter (Travis Coulter) and top relief pitcher (Ross Humes) are redshirting as seniors with injuries, and it would be easy for folks to question the Cougars' pedigree.

"I'd agree," Marbut said. "They're just not the right people. They're not the people that count.

"The people that count are the 35 guys on this roster. They believe."

On Sunday afternoon, for the umpteenth time this season, seeing was believing.


  • The Cougars finish the regular season with a Tuesday night game at Gonzaga (32-16) and a weekend series Friday through Sunday with Washington in Pullman ... The Huskies, who were playing a night game at Arizona on Sunday, are still fighting for a regionals berth ... Marbut said Oregon State (31-16, 13-11) deserves a regionals berth. The Beavers are ranked 25th in the ESPN/USA Today poll.
  • Marbut said Alex Burg, WSU's second-leading hitter (.355), may be back from his knee injury by the weekend.

  • Sunday's game drew an enthusiastic, near-capacity crowd of 2,959 on a gorgeous afternoon at Coleman Field.

  • The Cougars are 7-5 in one-run games after sandwiching a pair of one-run wins over Oregon State around a Saturday loss ... The Cougars started the season 0-4 in one-run games and 0-4 in two-run games during a 5-11 start ... WSU would have to sweep Washington and have third-ranked Arizona State lose its three games with UCLA next weekend in order to tie the Sun Devils for the Pac-10 title.

  • Sunday's win clinched no worse than a fifth-place finish for the Cougars. Only once (a tie for sixth in 2007) have the Cougars finished higher than eighth since the Pac-10's north and south divisions were united in 1999. … The 64 NCAA tournament teams will be announced next Monday. Sites are not yet known.

  • Marbut said senior right fielder Jared Prince, erratic on the mound since a promising freshman season, will no longer pitch. … WSU freshman Derek Jones' double off losing pitcher Kevin Rhoderick in the ninth inning is the only extra-base hit Rhoderick has allowed in 39 college games. He was a Freshman All-American last season.

  • Jorge Reyes, an OSU junior from Warden, retired the first nine WSU hitters before the Cougars started roughing him up. Reyes was the Most Outstanding Player at the 2007 College World Series, when the Beavers won it all for the second straight year ... Johnson retired Oregon State's last nine batters after he entered the game in the seventh inning and immediately gave up a homer to slugging catcher Ryan Ortiz.

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