Strike One: Changing Of The Guard Out West
Pepperdine will not get a chance to win its fifth straight West Coast Conference championship this year. Barring some bizarre cosmic interference, Oregon State will not win its third consecutive Pac-10 title. Cal State Fullerton’s chances to capture its fourth straight Big West championship are equally slim, though the Titans appear to be back on track after taking two of three from Wichita State on the road this weekend. But that won’t help Fullerton in the Big West standings, where it trails Long Beach State by five games with six to play.
The Beavers and Waves, however, were still in position to make runs at their respective conference titles until this weekend. Both teams lost winnable home series against non-top 25 teams, dashing their hopes for continued conference supremacy. Pepperdine has appeared in the WCC championship series every year since the league instituted the best-of-three series in 1999. The Waves entered the weekend tied with Gonzaga in the loss column, but the Bulldogs went to Malibu and took the first two games of the series, clinching second place and a trip to San Diego for the championship series. Give Gonzaga credit: its formidable pitching staff gives it a chance to win any series. Saturday starter Clayton Mortensen, a senior righthander, has flashed three average-to-plus pitches at times, with a heavy 90-94 mph fastball, a good slider and a changeup. He struck out 15 in a complete-game victory Saturday, and junior righthander Brandon Harmon (who works off a good curveball) followed by working into the 11th inning in a loss Sunday. Those are good arms, but Pepperdine still should have won that series at home. Now Gonzaga looks to be in good shape for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament even if it loses to USD in the WCC championship series, because the Bulldogs already have series wins against the Toreros and Waves on their resume. Pepperdine is probably still safe thanks to an early-season resume that includes series wins over Wichita State, Fresno State and Minnesota, but the Waves really need to win their final regular-season series against Portland to be safe.
Oregon State has dropped back-to-back series against Washington and Washington State, the latter a home series this weekend. After being swept at Arizona in their conference opener, the Beavers had battled back to .500 in the league before the last two weeks. Now they sit in fifth place at 8-10, with two series remaining: at home against Arizona State and at UCLA. Neither weekend will be easy, and if Oregon State can’t win at least one of them, it could find itself on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble, as hard as that might be to believe. If the Beavers go 2-4 down the stretch, they will finish just 10-14 in conference, and they will have lost four consecutive weekend series. That’s not a regional resume, despite OSU’s pedigree as the defending national champs and its solid early-season record against a good schedule.
Strike Two: Patriot Missiles
The NCAA tournament’s second entrant was decided this weekend in the Patriot League tournament. Lafayette, the Patriot’s regular-season champ, joined Ivy League champion Brown in the field of 64 after dispatching of No. 2 seed Army in the first two games of the best-of-three championship series. Army had punched its ticket to the title series by beating No. 3 seed Navy in Saturday’s first game. Army senior lefthander Nick Hill struck out 13 and allowed three earned runs over 8.2 innings to beat Midshipmen ace Mitch Harris, who allowed four unearned runs over six innings.
After that, Army did not have enough left in the tank to overcome the well-rested Leopards, who jumped out to a 5-0 lead over the first two innings in the championship series opener later Saturday. Lafayette outfielders James Conrad, Mike Raible and Ryan Roberts combined to go 8-for-12 with four RBIs in the win, and ace lefty Matt Kamine was solid, allowing three runs over six innings of work.
The Leopards jumped out to an early lead again Sunday, going ahead 2-0 in the first inning before Army tied it up an inning later. But Lafayette broke it open with four runs in the sixth. Junior second baseman Tom Hayes led the offense, going 4-for-5. Like Brown, Lafayette has a good enough offense and a few solid arms necessary to play spoiler in a regional.
Strike Three: Conference USA Circus
This much we know: Rice is going to win the C-USA regular-season championship for the second year in a row. At 19-2 in the league, the Owls have become the juggernaut they were expected to be back in the preseason. After Rice, it is safe to assume East Carolina will be an NCAA tournament team. The Pirates still have a chance to host a regional, but that case would be bolstered significantly if they can make some noise in the C-USA tournament.
After the top two, though, Conference USA is a mess. Memphis could have probably secured itself a regional berth with a win this weekend against Houston, but instead the Cougars took two out of three, and now the two teams are tied for third place at 12-9. Houston looked to be safe a couple of weeks ago before being swept by East Carolina. The Cougars will get another chance to solidify their position next weekend against Southern Mississippi, which is 11-10 in conference and also has a chance at an at-large bid if it can finish strong. Houston and Memphis could both end up kicking themselves for dropping weekend series against Marshall, because right now, C-USA looks like a three-bid league. Two of them will go to Rice and ECU.