Pacific Northwest becoming formidable baseball landscape as Washington State improves play
There have been 29 NCAA championships in baseball among current Pac-12 schools. Twenty-seven of those were California and Arizona schools.
The other two? Oregon State in 2006 and ‘07.
Baseball in the Pacific Northwest has always been an afterthought in college baseball. Since 1967, only nine states have been home to national champions: California, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Oklahoma, Kansas and Oregon.
The frequent downpours of rain in the region have inhibited schools’ ability to practice year-round and recruit well.
In 1995, Pat Casey’s first year as the Beavers’ head coach, the conference was split into the Pac-10 North and the Pac-10 South, with the formidable schools from sunny California and Arizona playing each other, and OSU, Washington State and Washington being grouped in with the likes of Portland, Portland State and Gonzaga — the opposite of baseball powerhouses.
“For a while, I think a lot of people were underestimating (teams from the Northwest),” said junior right fielder Dylan Davis.
Fast-forward 20 years and the state of the conference has turned upside down.
No. 9 Washington is atop the conference standings with the No. 6 Beavers (25-6, 9-3 Pac-12) one game behind. Washington State is tied for third with UCLA and No. 25 Oregon is tied for fifth.
“It’s nice to see all of us up there,” said junior left-handed pitcher Jace Fry. “I feel like that’s kind of how the Pac-12 works — everyone just beats up on each other.”
The three teams from the conference in the national top 25 are all from the Pacific Northwest. Meanwhile, traditional powerhouses USC, Stanford, Arizona State, Arizona and Cal are filling out the bottom half of the conference standings. Those five have a combined Pac-12 record of 21-33, and ASU and UCLA are the only schools from California and Arizona with a winning record in conference play.
The Beavers are heading to Pullman, Wash., this weekend for a three-game series against the Cougars. WSU enters with a 15-14 overall record, with a 6-3 mark in Pac-12 play.
Of the Pacific Northwest teams, the Cougars have had the least success. They haven’t won a conference title since 1995, when it was the Pac-10 North. Their combined conference record in the past three seasons is 31-56, and they haven’t finished with an overall winning percentage better than .500 since 2010.
This year’s club looks rejuvenated, and the Beavers are taking notice.
“It’s just good for the whole conference every time you can have a team that’s starting to turn it around, starting to win games,” said senior left-hander Ben Wetzler.
In two road series, WSU took out of three games against Arizona, and took UCLA to 11 innings in the rubber match, ultimately losing the series, 1-2. Two weeks ago, the Cougars swept Cal.
The Cougars have typically been solid offensively, and that has continued; they’re second in conference play in batting average (.285) and second in stolen bases (10).
The difference this year has been their ability to pitch and play defense well. WSU has a 3.14 earned run average in Pac-12 play and ranks fourth in fielding percentage (.978).
“(WSU is) solid, all-around,” Davis said. “Three good starters, and they’ve got a pretty good bullpen. And they can swing it, like always.”
Last season, the Cougars came into Corvallis for the last series of the season. The Beavers took two out of three, and the WSU players had to watch OSU celebrate its Pac-12 championship on the field after the final game.
A year later, the Cougars have something to play for.
With the recent success of the four Northwest schools, the region may finally be recognized as a formidable part of the college baseball landscape.
“It speaks amends to the kind of ball we play up here,” Davis said.
Warner Strausbaugh, editor-in-chief
On Twitter @WStrausbaugh