MARBUT: Vows postseason return after loss

NORMAN, Okla. -- Washington State traveled 1,300 miles to get to Norman. It only seemed like Aaron Baker's home run traveled even further. WSU's splendid season came to a crash landing in the stifling heat of an Oklahoma afternoon when Aaron Baker lambasted Adam Conley's first pitch an estimated 500 feet for a seventh-inning grand slam that sent the Cougars packing Sunday at the Norman Regional.

The third-seeded Cougars fell 7-2 to top-seeded Oklahoma to finish 1-2 in their first NCAA tournament in 19 years.

"We'll be back, I can tell you that," coach Donnie Marbut promised. "This is not a one-time deal."

Marbut's confidence is based largely on the promise of returning players like Conley. The Cougars, who split four games with the Sooners in Pullman in February, return seven of the 10 players who started Sunday.

Conley, the hard-throwing freshman from Olympia enjoyed considerable success this season, particularly when facing left-handed hitters like Baker.

Sunday was different. Real different, real fast.

Conley's one and only pitch of the day flew out of Dale Mitchell Park with only slightly less speed than the charter plane that transported the Cougars back home after the game. "We bring in the left-hander to face Baker," Marbut mused afterwards. "A freshman against that guy. I'm quite sure Oklahoma likes their chances.

"Adam Conley has done a real good job for us this year. We put him in a tough situation."

DITTO FOR David Stilley, the redshirt freshman whom Marbut sent to the mound despite disastrous results in Stilley's previous three starts. When the first five Oklahoma batters reached base -- including No. 3 hitter Bryant Hernandez, who launched a two-run homer with one out -- Stilley appeared destined for another quick exit.

"It's not comforting," Marbut acknowledged. "I mean, it's not a great feeling to have. But he's a tough kid."

A talented and gutsy one, too. Stilley wound up scattering six hits over six-plus innings against one of the most feared lineups in college baseball.

It wasn't nearly enough, partly because the Cougar bullpen -- so good most of the season -- collapsed in both losses at regionals. The two men Stilley put on in the seventh scored when Connor Lambert gave up a pair of infield singles -- the first on an excellent bunt that Lambert could not field, the second on a ball that glanced off the glove of diving third baseman Matt Argyropolous to snap a 2-2 tie -- and then Baker greeted Conley by crushing his fifth career homer in seven NCAA tournament games.

"We were trying to go away on him," Marbut said. "The ball showed up middle in, and he hit it a mile. You have to tip your hat to him."

Baker returned the favor, though he went a bit overboard when he said the Cougars "can really hit the ball."

IN THREE GAMES at regionals, the 24th-ranked Cougars were outscored 19-8 and outhit 26-17. For the season, the Cougars hit .273 with 56 home runs and averaged 6.1 runs per game. Ninth-ranked Oklahoma is hitting .320 with 91 home runs and an average of 8.2 runs.

"I still don't think there's a better offensive team, one through nine (in the batting order), than Oklahoma," Marbut said. "They can really swing the bats."

As for the Cougars, they take their bats and balls home for the summer after finishing the year 32-25.

"Our guys played hard the entire year," Marbut said. "We're proud of our group."

  • Prince wrapped up his stellar college career by going 0-for-3, but he made a diving catch in right field and finished with just one error in four years at WSU. Prince was hit by a pitch each game at regionals, giving him 41 plunks for his career. That ranks second in WSU history behind the 61 of Jim Murphy, who came into the season ranked eighth in NCAA Division I history and first in Pac-10 history.

  • Garrett Richards, who walked six and gave up three runs in 4 1/3 innings in a 12-3 win at WSU on Feb. 28, tossed a five-hitter Sunday in his first complete game in college. "He was pretty special," Marbut said. Richards (9-4) struck out 10 and walked one. The junior right-hander leads the Sooners in wins, but he's been inconsistent and vulnerable to the long ball. He came into the game with an ugly 6.55 earned run average. "He was bringing some good velocity all game," said WSU second baseman Michael Weber, who slammed a two-run homer in the second inning. "His command wasn't an issue like it was earlier in the year when we faced him. He had really good command of his curveball, too."

  • After Conley made his third brief appearance in three days at regionals, Seth Harvey entered the game. His first pitch drilled Garrett Buechele in the helmet, and Buechele (the son of former major leaguer Steve Buechele) made his displeasure known. Everyone calmed down quickly, and Harvey struck out four of the five other batters he faced, including all three in the eighth inning. Conley led the Cougars with 25 games pitched, a school record for a freshman.

  • The crowd of 1,439 in Norman was pro-Oklahoma, of course, but it was hard to tell at first glance, since the stands were awash in crimson. Alas, the Sooners also wear crimson. Ticket scalpers worked all the games in Norman, though none of the games sold out.

  • Eleven Sooners have been drafted by major league teams, compared to four Cougars. WSU leads the all-time series with Oklahoma 8-5, but the Sooners have played in nine College World Series and won it all in 1951 and 1994. WSU's best showing in four CWS appearances was a runner-up finish in 1950.

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