It should be fun. This is the first time we’re going in not just happy to be there but to really do some damage. —BYU head coach Mike Littlewood
Slugger Eric Urry calls his last three years at BYU an “amazing” journey, and he doesn’t want it to end this week at the league championship in Stockton, California.
Urry’s attitude is a good one. “We don’t want to leave going to the NCAAs to chance. We want to take care of business so we don’t have to leave it to someone telling us we are in or not.”
And that’s the rub for this 37-win Cougar team that rocketed to a gob of wins, then held on to play near break-even ball the past month. “We are excited,” said Urry. “We’ve faced all the pitchers we might see in the first game no matter who we play. They’re good, but we’ve got a good one too in Mike Rucker. No matter what, it will be a good matchup, and we’ve got great hitters and we just need to play our game and we’ll be OK.”
BYU might have its most successful season in 15 years fall short of a berth in the NCAA Tournament if it does not win the automatic berth on the line at the West Coast Conference Baseball Tournament.
Just like basketball, the league could be a one-bid league in baseball. The NCAA selection committee, which considers and weighs selection in part on RPI rankings, heavily favors the SEC and ACC for league brand play while discounting teams in the West for similar battles.
Even the Pac-12, a league that has also beaten itself up, isn’t getting credit for carnage against one another. It’s a path certainly taken by BYU, Gonzaga, Pepperdine and Saint Mary’s, all headed for a knock-down, drag-out fight that begins Thursday in Stockton.
“Last year, we definitely were a one-bid league,” said the WCC’s senior director of communications. “This year it’s different, at least two WCC teams should get bids.”
No. 1 seed Saint Mary’s plays No. 4 Pepperdine Thursday at 3 p.m., and No. 2 BYU plays No. 3 Gonzaga at 7 p.m. at Banner Island Ballpark.
Does the WCC deserve two bids? BYU coach Mike Littlewood believes so.
“Yes, for sure. We’ve seen all the teams, played them and all four teams are very good in the tournament. Gonzaga has a great RPI. I think they’ll get in no matter what. Pepperdine has a couple of good pitchers and they are a good team. Saint Mary’s is deep, the No. 1 guy could go top 15 in the country. We deserve two or three, but life isn’t always fair. I think we’ll get two though.”
The NCAA baseball RPI rankings on May 20 had Gonzaga at 35, BYU 51, Saint Mary’s at 78 and Pepperdine at 77. The highest RPI among Western teams is UC Santa Barbara at No. 21, followed by Arizona at 24, and Cal-Fullerton at 29. The University of Utah, which is battling for the Pac-12’s title, has an RPI of 119.
At one time, the Cougars were highly ranked after the most successful start in school history, and the school began paperwork for a bid to host a regional.
But the West, comprised of baseball rich California and an area that has routinely hosted two, sometimes three NCAA regionals, could get just one NCAA site this year, and that has plenty of coaches unhappy.
This would be a first in the modern era, according to the Orange County Register.
Last year, UCLA, Fullerton and UCSB hosted regionals. In 2014, Oregon State and Cal Poly hosted NCAA regionals in the West.
“We’ve just beat each other up all season,” UCLA coach John Savage told the Register. His program won the 2013 College World Series. “It doesn’t mean that teams are bad. There’s just so much parity in the West, and parity isn’t good for the RPI.”
Writes OCR sportswriter Bob Keisser, “The NCAA process has annually been heavily skewed toward major conference teams in the South, the SEC and ACC, so area coaches are used to this. It’s just that the tilt has never been this lopsided.
“The current RPI features 18 teams from the South in the top 20, even though six played lightweight schedules with non-conference strength-of-schedule ratings of 106 or higher (Virginia, Clemson, Texas A&M, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State).”
Cal State Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook doesn’t like it.
“We can’t change anything,” Vanderhook said. “It’s like in football, where the power schools dominate. Boise State and BYU have to go unbeaten to get a chance at a big bowl game. Other Power 5 schools don’t. It all comes down to money, and no one in the NCAA is going to legislate against anything that makes money."
The Cougars finished the regular season 37-15 overall and 18-9 in league play by sweeping a home series with Santa Clara last weekend. This is easily the best Cougar team since 2001 and the first ever to win a WCC baseball title.
Littlewood knows BYU’s high RPI is working against an automatic NCAA berth, but believes it isn’t out of reach.
“I feel we have to get to the championship game,” said Littlewood. “I feel like we’ve put together a pretty good schedule. We lost a couple of games here and there we probably shouldn’t have lost, but overall I feel good about our schedule. We went out of our way to play some good teams and beat them on the road. I’m not going to guess what they’re thinking, but I like our chances if we get to the championship game.”
The Cougars have a talented ace in undefeated 11-0 Mike Rucker, and they’ll use him in Game 1 in Stockton.
Littlewood said Hayden Rogers, a lefty, is a possibility to start and Jordan Wood would be back after throwing this past week. “He’s a 90 to 92 (mph) guy who was really good earlier. Hopefully we’ll have more bullets.
“We’ll go with Michael Rucker right out of the gate and go from there. Our philosophy is to just win the game we’re playing. It doesn’t matter who we throw, we just want to win the next one instead of saving a guy (pitcher) here or there. We can’t really afford to do that with our staff. We have to throw somebody out there who is going to be competitive with that particular at-bat.”
Littlewood stands up for the WCC, just like Vanderhook does for Big West and the brand of competition found in Southern California, be it Pac-12, Big West or WCC.
The Cougars did streak then fade this season, but he credits the quality of WCC competition instead of making an excuse for injuries to star pitchers.
The Cougars won series against Saint Louis, Samford, Kansas, Pacific, Loyola Marymount, Portland, San Diego, Gonzaga, Utah Valley, San Francisco, Santa Clara and Pac-12 leader Utah.
BYU climbed to as high as No. 16 (PerfectGame.com) the weeks of April 4 and 12 and was last ranked 26 by National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association on May 2.
“The law of averages tells you you aren’t going to go 50 and 4. We were 23 and 3 and people ask what happened. What happened is we play in a pretty good league. We have a really good record and had a chance to win our league.”
They did, tying for the regular season title.
Littlewood is proud of his Cougar squad, the first to finish atop the regular season since BYU joined the WCC from the Mountain West. “It’s been a fun, rewarding season. In a word, I’d say rewarding. The guys have worked hard, we’ve accomplished a few of our goals, but our main goal is to make it to a regional, and that’s attainable right now.”
If the Cougars advance, they’ll need to be successful at the plate with Brennon Lund, Hayden Nielsen, Tanner Chauncey, Nate Favero and Eric Urry leading the way.
“Pitching is on the back of my mind all the time with guys going down and guys stepping up and taking the opportunity,” said Littlewood. “We feel good how we’re playing. It doesn’t feel like we’re backing into the tournament at all. It doesn’t matter who we play, it really doesn’t. We’re going to face a really good pitcher and their team is going to face a really good pitcher and offense as well.”
Littlewood will have his guys ready because they are hungry.
“It should be fun. This is the first time we’re going in not just happy to be there but to really do some damage. We have a little bit more of a season left.”
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