OMAHA, NE- At the opening press conference to begin his team’s time at the College World Series, Washington head coach Lindsay Meggs was asked about his team perhaps playing with house money, given that they weren’t necessarily predicted to be here.
“It’s hard for me to disagree with that statement (on playing with house money), because I don’t think, of all the teams that are here, I don’t think too many people sitting in the audience today picked us to be here from the beginning of the season to even through the postseason,” Meggs said.
Indeed, the Huskies came into the postseason far from on the tip of the tongue for most when talking about favorites to advance to Omaha.
They logged the most miles traveled to get to their regional, about 3,000, from their Seattle campus to Conway, South Carolina, for the regional hosted by Coastal Carolina. To top it off, that wasn’t an easy regional by any stretch. Certainly, Coastal had the pieces to hope for another deep run, and the two-seed, UConn, was a team disappointed not to be hosting a regional of their own.
Of course, you can go back even further and find them as outsiders in the postseason discussion altogether. They weren’t even in the mix for a spot in a regional until late in the campaign. In fact, if you pick any point right up until they polished off a series win over Stanford to wrap up the season, they were probably on the outside looking in.
In early March, after a quality 2-1 weekend at the DQ Classic in Minneapolis, they came home and lost three of four to Illinois State, dropping them to 7-8 on the year. On April 18, they fell at home to UT-Rio Grande Valley, which moved them to 18-18. And even as they began to pile up victories after that point, winning Pac-12 series against Washington State, Arizona State, UCLA, and Utah, their metrics hadn’t quite caught up.
With just two weeks left in the regular season, their RPI sat in the 70s, which made a postseason appearance unlikely, as no team with an RPI in the 70s has ever made the field of 64 as an at-large team. Of course, the series win over Stanford changed things on a dime. It pushed the RPI back down into the low 60s, moved their Pac-12 record to 20-10, and gave the Huskies another all-important marquee weekend result to go along with the weekend in Minneapolis and the series win over UCLA.
From there, they stayed hot. They went 3-0 in the Conway Regional and took two of three on the road against Cal State Fullerton in a super regional to get them here. And that’s all that matters now.
What never changed, at least as far as Meggs is concerned, is his team’s belief, with the idea of playing with house money being more about other’s expectations, not their own.
“I think that’s more of a comment about maybe us believing that we belong and not many others embracing that,” Meggs said.
So what has changed that has them here, then?
A huge part has been a healthy A.J. Graffanino. The second baseman played through the DQ Classic over the first weekend of March, but then went down with injury until April. Then, after playing a single game against Cal on April 20, he went down again until coming back for good in time for the UCLA series that began on May 11. He’s raised his average from .313 to .373 since then, and has been nearly unstoppable in the postseason. In the six postseason games the Huskies have played, Graffanino has gone 13-for-26, including three different three-hit games.
Throughout the latter portion of the season, Joe Wainhouse also developed into one of the premier power bats in the country. He’s had a nice season from beginning to end with an average above .300 most of the year, but the power was turned up a notch as things wound down. He didn’t hit his first homer of the season until March 9, and as recently as May 4, he had six. Since then, he’s hit 13 homers, giving him 19 on the season, including five in the postseason alone.
In fact, the UW offense as a whole has been a revelation since the postseason kicked off. In the regular season, they were a solid unit, but not one known for piling up runs in bunches, and even now, their .274/.353/.395 slash line doesn’t blow you away.
Their postseason numbers, however, are another story entirely, as they’re hitting .332/.373/.491, led by Graffanino, Wainhouse, Levi Jordan (.423), Christian Jones (.385), Braiden Ward (.360), and Nick Kahle (.280). Strangely, it might be good news for the Hukies that Mason Cerrillo is hitting just .231 in the postseason. Given that he’s hit .335 on the year, you can’t really expect that to continue.
Suddenly, this is a Washington offense you can’t really mess around with too much.
On the pitching side, staff ace Joe DeMers has been steady all season long, as his 2.56 ERA in 123 innings suggests, but over the second half of the season, Meggs and pitching coach Jason Kelly have found a way to maximize his production. In the Oregon series, the Stanford series, and again in game one against the Titans, DeMers came out of the bullpen to save the opener of a series and then started in the finale of the series. That won’t be the set up for his appearances in the CWS, but given the staggered games with days off in between built into the schedule, he will be able to pitch multiple times if Washington can stay alive.
Admittedly, this is not exactly the most navigable College World Series field. Florida, Oregon State, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Texas Tech were all teams that came into the season with legitimate national title aspirations, and each lived up to them for the most part. Texas is playing with a lot of belief right now, and they have perhaps the best player in college baseball in Kody Clemens on their side. And sure, Mississippi State wasn’t expected to be here after all they’ve been through this season, but in the preseason, you could have made a reasonable argument for them being an Omaha team. They just took a circuitous route to get here.
With that said, things could certainly be worse as far as matchups go. They draw MSU to start, the only other non-one seed here at the CWS. Both teams have to feel that this game, set for Saturday evening, presents a good opportunity to get off to a quick start. And if they can win that one, they’ll draw UNC or OSU, but crucially, won’t see Luke Heimlich or Gianluca Dalatri on the mound.
Advancing deep won’t be easy, but then again, neither was getting here. And now that they’re here, what do they have to lose?