Strike One: Gonzaga Strengthens Hold On WCC Lead

MALIBU, Calif.The West Coast Conference is tightly bunched as usual, with four teams (San Diego, Pepperdine, San Francisco and Loyola Marymount) tied for second place, and another (Brigham Young) just a half game behind that group.

But there’s some separation at the very top, where Gonzaga has gotten off to a 13-5 start and climbed to No. 22 in the Baseball America Top 25 rankings. The Bulldogs reeled off an 11-game winning streak before dropping Sunday’s series finale at Pepperdine, but they still won that series on the road, solidifying their status as the WCC’s team to beat.

“We’re doing enough,” said a cautiously optimistic Gonzaga coach Mark Machtolf. “We’ve won, I think, three or four one-run games (actually five) during the winning streak, and we’ve been pretty fortunate. But the kids have battled and executed pretty well.”

And that’s one of the things that stands out about Gonzaga: the way it grinds out at-bats, executes small ball, and keeps pressure on opposing defenses. Friday was a good example. Mitchell Gonsolus walked to lead off the game, moved to second on a single, moved to third on a sacrifice and scored on a sac fly. The next inning, Alex Bonczyk reached on an error, stole second and third and scored on a perfect suicide squeeze. In the sixth, the Zags sat back and took four walks and sprinkled in three RBI singles to score four runs.

Saturday was more of the same: Gonzaga manufactured runs in the fourth and fifth, and that was enough to win with Tyler Olson dealing. It wasn’t anything fancy on offense, but it was effective.

“We’re not right now overly offensive where we’re just going to come out and smash people,” Machtolf said. “But the young kids are battling, (Caleb) Wood has stepped up, Cabe Reiten does some things from an execution standpoint. Then the older guys have done a good job too.”

The blend of seasoned veterans such as Marco Gonzales, Steven Halcomb and Clayton Eslick with skilled newcomers like Cory Lebrun, Wood and Reiten has made for a better offensive team than the numbers indicate. Gonzaga has hit just four home runs this season and is hitting .272 as a team, but it isn’t a fun team to play against.

“I’ve always thought Gonzaga is one of the more underrated teams in the country,” San Diego coach Rich Hill said last month. “What’s overlooked is the job Coach Machtolf does with their hitters; they just grind you, wear you out. You can’t strike them out, they’re aggressive on the bases. Someday when I retire, I’m just going to go up there and break it down with Mach. They don’t chase, they just wear you down.”

Of course, the biggest strength of Gonzaga’s team is the one-two pitching punch of Gonzales and Olson. “You don’t get that very often in a career,” Hill said of that duo. Both came up big this weekend, as Gonzales threw seven strong innings to beat Scott Frazier on Friday, and Olson followed with a four-hit shutout on Saturday. Both lefthanders compete, throw strikes and know how to win. Olson is now 7-2, 2.41 on the season, while Gonzales is 5-2, 2.57.

The bullpen is built around a pair of quality junior righthanders, Arturo Reyes (5-1, 1.82) and Kenny Smith (3-0, 3.68). Reyes has power stuff, with a fastball that reaches 92 and a good slider, while Smith has some funk and deception in his three-quarters delivery and feel for three pitches.

The sum is greater than the parts with Gonzaga, which is getting closer to at-large range in the Ratings Percentage Index (up to No. 59). Gonzaga’s postseason resume also includes a win against Arkansas, a tie against Arizona State, a series win against San Diego and a 3-0 record in midweek games against Pac-12 neighbor Washington State. And, of course, that first-place status in the WCC.

So while Machtolf isn’t the type to get effusive in his praise for his team, he is pleased with his club, which is now 26-11-1 overall.

“The main thing I tell everybody is they like each other,” Machtolf said. “They enjoy going to battle with each other.”...

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