PROVO — For the first time since joining the West Coast Conference, BYU is the top seed in the league’s four-team baseball tournament.
“It means we get to wear white uniforms and face the best pitcher in the league,” said coach Mike Littlewood.
Yes, the Cougars will confront No. 4 Loyola Marymount's ace, senior Codie Paiva, the WCC Pitcher of the Year, when they collide with the Lions in the first game of the WCC Tournament on Thursday (4 p.m. MDT, TheW.tv) at Banner Island Ballpark in Stockton, California.
The loser of that game will drop into the consolation bracket, making it more difficult to win the tournament and earn the automatic bid to the NCAA regional.
No. 2 Gonzaga meets No. 3 Saint Mary’s in Thursday’s nightcap. The tournament continues Friday and Saturday.
While BYU beat LMU in two of three games in Los Angeles earlier this month, the one contest the Cougars lost was when they matched up against Paiva, who scattered seven hits over five innings and struck out seven in LMU’s 5-1 victory.
“He’s pretty good at mixing his pitches. As long as we sit on his fast ball, we’ll get pitches to hit,” BYU senior Brock Hale, the WCC Player of the Year, said of Paiva. “For us, the biggest thing is to, right out of the gate, to jump on him. If we can get a couple of runs and have some big innings on him, it will put a lot of pressure on LMU because they’re not a great hitting team.”
Two years ago, the Cougars lost their opening game to LMU but rallied to win the tournament.
“That first game is big. It doesn’t really matter what seed you are going into the tournament because each team that makes it, every team has a good No. 1 (pitcher),” said infielder Jackson Cluff. “My freshman year, we dropped the first one. Hopefully, we can take care of business in that first game. If you stay in the winner’s bracket, it gives you more confidence going into those last couple of days. But whatever happens, I’m confident the team will bounce back.”
BYU, ranked No. 24 in the nation by Baseball America, boasts a strong pitching staff and the Cougars will start senior Jordan Wood on the mound in the opening game.
“It’s been a historic year for BYU pitchers. Jordan has done excellent and Justin Sterner and Easton Walker have stepped up and have been excellent,” Hale said. “They’ve really stepped up and we expect them to do the same in the tournament.”
“Our pitchers have kept us in every single game and they’ve held leads,” Littlewood said. “We’ve gotten out of bases-loaded, no-out jams all year long. That’s not by accident.”
The Cougars are coming off a series win over Santa Clara, which finished last in the WCC standings.
“We kind of struggled this weekend and played tense against Santa Clara,” Cluff said. “(Littlewood) tried to help us stay focused on being relaxed and going into the conference tournament with a purpose, remembering that we put together a good season and we’re the team to beat.”
BYU (36-15) may have done enough to earn an at-large berth into the NCAAs, but the Cougars would rather remove all doubt by clinching the WCC’s automatic bid this weekend.
“We just have to go in confident and understand that we want to be in control of playing more baseball,” Cluff said. “You don’t want to rely on other people to put us in the NCAA Tournament. I hope we just take care of business and that we don’t have to rely on the at-large bid.”
Littlewood knows that anything can happen in a tournament format, regardless of seeding.4 comments on this story
“Anybody can win it. We proved that two years ago when we lost to LMU and came back. In Game 2, we were down 2-0 to Saint Mary’s. We weren’t playing very well and then all of the sudden Bronson Larsen hits a home run to tie it up and we rolled for 35 innings in a row,” he recalled. “Nobody could get us out.
“It’s a lot about a team that gets hot and who’s pitching it really well. There are some scary teams to play right now. Seven years ago, when we first made the tournament my first year, we were ecstatic to even show up and we felt like we had arrived. But it doesn’t feel like that anymore.”
• . • . •
Cougars on the air
WCC Baseball Tournament
No. 1 BYU (36-15)
vs. No. 4 Loyola Marymount (29-23)
Thursday, 4 p.m. MDT
Banner Island Ballpark
Radio: ESPN 960