Forget outcome. Cougs' Bartlett steals day

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Jim Murray, the late, great L.A. Times sports writer, once wrote that Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson "has a strike zone the size of Hitler's heart." Murray was referring to Henderson's crouched stance. Washington State second baseman Cody Bartlett also crouches low, and when you combine that with the fact he only stands 5-foot-8, Bartlett's strike zone is rather Rickey-like.

Bartlett's strike zone may be tiny, but his glove looked gargantuan Saturday night. The 23rd-ranked Cougars lost 6-4 to No. 15 Arkansas to move within one loss of the end of their season, but Bartlett -- who homered for the second straight night -- staged a spectacular fielding exhibition that earned grudging admiration and applause from some 9,000 Arkansas fans at Baum Stadium.

"I've never seen anything like it," Cougar coach Donnie Marbut said. "That's the best defensive performance I've ever seen by a guy.

"He's playing at a different level than anyone in this tournament right now. It was special to watch. "Basically, single-handedly he kept us in the game."

Bartlett, the pride of Kent, allowed that he "made the plays I had to." Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said Bartlett's modesty amounted to his only error of the night.

"Their second baseman made some incredible plays," Van Horn said. "He made about every play you could make. I think he saved them probably three runs with his glove."

Bartlett's "Saturday Night Special" consisted largely of flashy backhand plays, including two where he slid as he hauled in grounders after ranging to his right.

"We just kept thinking, ‘We're getting ready to put 'em away, gonna put 'em away,'" Van Horn said. "Then he'd make a play."

"He made some great plays," Arkansas right fielder Collin Kuhn said.

"It was a highlight reel every time the ball was hit to him," Marbut said.

Alas, it was not enough to prevent WSU's fifth loss in as many tries the past two seasons against Arkansas. That includes an 0-4 mark at Baum.

"Credit to Arkansas," said Marbut, who has repeatedly stressed his admiration for Razorback coaches, players and fans. "You've got to play nine innings.

"Credit our guys for coming back and making it a game. We just didn't play clean enough to win."

The Cougars were uncharacteristically sloppy at times. Star right fielder Derek Jones had trouble with high throws all night. One of those throws sailed over Bartlett's head in the fourth inning for an error that let in Arkansas' third run.

The Razorbacks tacked on another run later in the inning to go ahead 4-0. Bartlett cut the deficit in half by lining a two-run homer that bounced off the top of the left-field fence in the sixth inning.

However, Arkansas star Zack Cox -- limited to DH duties by his sore back -- led off the seventh with an off-field laser to left-center to push the Razorbacks ahead 5-2.

Michael Weber responded with a solo homer in the bottom of the seventh (WSU won a coin flip to determine the home team). That made it 5-3, and when the Cougars loaded the bases with none out in the eighth, comeback win No. 20 seemed inevitable.

Or … not. Washington State pushed across just one run before Jordan Pratt, the third relief pitcher of the inning, retired all three men he faced.

"You've got to tip your hat -- he made pitches," Marbut said.

The Cougars' season was left clinging to life support after Kuhn led off the ninth with a homer to left. Ryan Peterson opened the last half of the ninth with a pinch-hit double, but Pratt induced fly-ball outs from the final three hitters. The game ended with Bartlett -- who is 5-for-9 with four runs and four RBIs in two games at regionals -- on deck when left fielder Matt Vinson made a superb diving catch of Patrick Clausen's drive to shallow left.

One night after the top-seeded Razorbacks tied an NCAA tournament record with nine home runs against Grambling (La.) State, the Cougars matched the two home runs of Arkansas. The Razorbacks' two homers accounted for the deciding two runs, however, and Arkansas outhit the Cougars 13-7.

WSU's problems against left-handers continued when Arkansas ace Drew Smyly improved to 9-1 by holding the Cougars to three hits and three runs in seven innings. A top pro prospect, Smyly struck out seven and outdueled Adam Conley (5-4), who gave up a mix of bloopers and sharply hit balls. A major league scout at the game said both pitchers were throwing in the low 90's.

Conley yielded nine hits and five runs (four earned) in 6 1/3 innings. Aside from Bartlett, teammates did not always provide Conley with sterling defensive support. Also, Marbut (who coaches third base) accepted blame for getting Jones thrown out at home plate by about two zip codes for the third out of the first inning.

"I probably ran us out of the first inning," Marbut said. "Just trying to get something started against Smyly. He‘s plenty good."

So, of course, are the Cougars. They hope to get three more chances to prove it in Fayetteville, starting at 12:05 PDT this afternoon against Kansas State (37-21). The third-seeded Wildcats, who lost 8-6 to Washington State on Friday in a tight, well-played contest, barely hung on to eliminate fourth-seeded Grambling 9-8 Saturday afternoon.

Marbut said junior right-hander James Wise (3-1) will start on the mound for the Cougars. Kansas State counters with sophomore right-hander Justin Lindsey (4-3). Marbut said he's undecided who would start in a rematch with Arkansas.

The WSU-Kansas State winner faces top-seeded Arkansas (42-18) at 5:05 tonight. If the Razorbacks were to suffer their first loss of the regionals, the same two teams tangle at 5:05 p.m. Monday to determine who advances to the best-of-three Super Regionals -- the last hurdle before the College World Series.

If WSU faces Arkansas again, Bartlett said he hopes the Cougars can deal with the large, enthusiastic crowd better.

"It's one of the best venues for baseball," Bartlett said. "The fans are loud. They got it going.

"When you (the Razorbacks) get momentum and you've got a crowd on your back, I think that got to us at the beginning of the game."

Conley said the beer-drinking crowd at Baum makes for "an amazing atmosphere." The Cougars can only hope they leave Razorback fans drowning their sorrows the next two nights.

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