The WSU baseball team (18-14, 5-6 Pac-12) won its first Pac-12 Conference series of the year over the weekend by capturing two of three games against the struggling Utah Utes (9-25, 5-10 Pac-12) at Bailey-Brayton Field. The Cougars opened the series with a 9-2 win on Saturday night before dropping Saturday’s contest 4-3 in 10 innings. On Sunday, WSU bounced back in a 6-0 route.
Taylor Ard’s three hits propelled the Cougars in the first game of a series WSU needed to a win in to improve their postseason chances. The junior first basemen also drove in and scored a run. He sparked the offense in the bottom of the first inning with an RBI single before Adam Nelubowich’s sacrifice fly gave WSU an early 2-0 advantage.
After tacking on an unearned run in the second, Tommy Richards ripped a two-run single with the bases loaded, giving the Cougars a 5-1 lead.
WSU continued to pour things on as they picked up four more runs in the seventh and eighth innings. Shortstop Ian Sagdal added an RBI single with two outs in the seventh inning and Derek Jones laced a two-run single in the eighth.
Starter J.D. Leckenby (4-3) gave up just one run in six innings en route to striking out four. The former closer who now serves as WSU’s Friday night starter lowered his ERA to 3.44 on the season. Leckenby threw just 87 pitches and gave up six hits while walking just one.
Head Coach Donnie Marbut said he was impressed with the way Leckenby battled.
“J.D. wasn’t as sharp as he’s been but his stuff is so good at times that he can miss location,” Marbut said in a post-game interview. “As he gets older and gets better with more maturity and he commands the strike zone more then he’s going to be even more dangerous.”
A Mom’s Weekend crowd of 2,744 was on hand to witness a 4-3 WSU loss the Cougars let slip away.
Things looked promising early when WSU overcame an early 1-0 deficit. Still trailing after Utah starter Brock Duke breezed through the WSU lineup through three innings, Ard smashed a two-out opposite field home run in the bottom of the fourth inning to take a 2-1 lead. The blast came after Jason Monda led off the inning with an infield single. After Tommy Richards lined out, Jones followed with a walk to put runners on first and second.
However, Jones was thrown out at second trying to execute a double steal. Moments later, Ard smashed his sixth home run of the season over the right-field wall. The lost run would prove costly for the Cougars.
In the top of the seventh, Utah’s James Brooks helped the Utes regain the lead when he laced a double down the left-field line. Two runs scored as Utah went up 3-2.
WSU’s offense would remain quiet until the bottom of the 10th. After Richards led off with a single, Jones laced a fastball into right field for his first hit of the afternoon. With runners on the corners, Utes’ closer Tyler Wagner threw a wild pitch, allowing Richards to score from third and tie the game at 3-3.
Utah then proceeded to intentionally walk Ard, putting runners on first and second with no outs and the winning run just 180 feet away. Collin Slaybaugh opted to bunt, but his attempt rolled quickly back to Wagner, who threw out the WSU runner trying to advance to third.
After a wild pitch and intentional walk to Patrick Claussen, Sagdal came to the plate with a chance to win the series. The Wenatchee native responded by smashing a groundball back up the middle. Utah second basemen Tyley Relf dove as the ball struck the heel of his mitt.
Instead of ricocheting into center field or off-course, the ball deflected straight to Brooks.
The Utah shortstop stepped on second and threw to first for an inning-ending double play, silencing a raucous sold-out crowd at Bailey-Brayton.
The play proved to be a major momentum swing as Brooks led off the top of the 10th inning with a solo blast to left field off Anthony Drobnick 2-2. The Cougars threatened again in the bottom of the frame, but Monda was thrown out trying to steal second with two outs and Richards at the dish to end the game.
Unearned runs and Tanner Chleborad helped the Cougars quickly eliminate the sour taste of Saturday’s loss in Sunday afternoon’s 6-0 victory.
Chleborad pieced together the best start of his young career, striking out eight in seven and two-thirds innings of shutout work. Chleborad scattered seven hits and walked just one.
The freshman right-hander allowed the leadoff runner to reach base in the first four innings but was able to work out of jams by going to a 12-6 curveball that kept Utah off-balance throughout the contest.
“We’ve been talking about it and he has a chance to be one of the good ones,” Marbut said of his freshman starter.
Utah helped Chleborad’s cause in the bottom of the second inning. With runners in scoring position and the game knotted at 0-0, Monda hit a lazy groundball to second base.
Utah’s Relf double-clutched, then threw the ball wide of first, allowing two runs to score.
Relf’s day got worse in the fourth inning when he let a routine groundball go through his legs, allowing a run to score as WSU took a 3-0 lead.