BASEBALL: Postseason Cougs Virginia-bound?

PREDICTING THE ACTIONS of the NCAA is perilous at best and foolhardy at worst. If, however, you trust the opinion of Baseball America, ESPN.com and Donnie Marbut, Cougar fans should clear out dates late next week to follow Washington State at the NCAA baseball regionals.

All three sources claim the red-hot Cougs removed all doubt regarding their NCAA chances when they smoked USC in a series sweep last weekend in Pullman.

Baseball America goes so far as to say Coach Marbut's Cougars are headed to the University of Virginia -- the current address of former WSU men's basketball coach Tony Bennett -- for regionals.

BA predicts the Cougars will be joined in Charlottesville by second-ranked Virginia (45-10), unranked Liberty (39-17) of Lynchburg, Va., and unranked James Madison (29-21) of Harrisonburg, Va.

The 64-team NCAA tournament field will be announced Monday at 9:30 a.m. on ESPN. The 16 regional sites will be announced Sunday.

The Cougars, 31-18 with five straight wins, are ranked 20th this week by Collegiate Baseball. Baseball America pegs WSU at No. 22. USA Today/ESPN has the Cougars 27th in its Top 25 poll, and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association left WSU off its Top 30 poll.

WSU WRAPS UP the regular season this week, starting with a game tonight at 6:30 at Gonzaga (20-32), followed by a Wednesday evening tilt at 5:30 against visiting Portland (31-17 with eight straight losses) and then Friday, Saturday and Sunday at seventh-ranked UCLA (41-11 with seven straight wins).

The Cougars would have to sweep UCLA on the road to finish 17-10 in the Pac-10 and overtake the Bruins for second place (where WSU placed last year before going to regionals).

The Bruins, 16-8 in league play, need to sweep WSU and have first-place Arizona State (45-7, 18-6) go 0-3 at fourth-place Stanford (30-23, 13-11) to earn a share of the Pac-10 title.

THE COUGARS, WHO outscored USC 46-13 over the weekend, figure to have a far more difficult time scoring runs against UCLA.

The UCLA pitching staff leads the nation with 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings, and the Bruins are second in earned run average (3.08) and hits allowed per nine innings (7.42).

WSU ranks 230th among 292 NCAA Division I pitching staffs with 6.1 strikeouts per game. The Cougars' team ERA of 4.59 ranks 40th, and WSU stands 53th in hits allowed per nine innings at 9.72.

The Cougars average slightly more runs scored than the Bruins (7.2-7.0), but UCLA has a higher batting average (.313-.305) and a superior fielding percentage (.972-.968).

Thanks partly to the difference in strikeouts -- not to mention WSU's artificial turf playing surface -- the Cougars have turned more than twice as many double plays as UCLA (67-32). In fact, only Southern Mississippi has more twin killings (74) than the Cougs, and the Golden Eagles have played four more games than WSU.

THE TOP 10 hitters in the Pac-10 are sophomores or freshmen. WSU's Brett Jacobs ranks seventh overall and second among freshmen at .362.

WSU sophomore Derek Jones ranks fourth in home runs with 11 despite the fact that he missed nine games with a broken hand. Jones has hit safely in 10 consecutive games dating back to April 16. In his first six games back in the lineup, Jones is batting .565 (13-for-23) with three home runs and 12 RBIs.

Adam Conley, another WSU sophomore, remains second in saves with 10 despite his recent move into the starting rotation.

THE COUGARS' beat down of USC did little to affect their RPI. In the NCAA Rating Percentage Index released this afternoon, Washington State stayed right they were last week, at No. 32.

WSU's RPI is however likely to move upwards following the road games against UCLA. An example -- Oregon State dropped two of three on the road to the top five Sun Devils this past weekend... and saw their RPI climb from 33 to 30.

NOTABLE NOTE:
In the 64-team college baseball postseason, the winner of each four-team, double elimination regional moves on to the second tier, the Super Regionals. There, the 16 surviving teams play a best of three series to determine the eight schools who move onto the College World Series in Omaha. The CWS is similar to the regionals, with two double-elimination brackets of four teams each. The bracket winners then meet in a best-of-three final to be crowned National Champion.


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