Provo • Yes, there is a bubble for the NCAA Baseball Tournament, just like in basketball.
And the BYU Cougars are squarely on it, despite being ranked No. 24 in the country by Baseball America, having a sparkling 36-15 record and having defeated seven Power Five opponents, the most in school history.
It is true, even though the Cougars won their first outright regular-season conference championship in 30 years last weekend, finishing with a 19-8 West Coast Conference record to edge Gonzaga (30-22, 18-9) by a game.
Because BYU’s RPI slipped from the low 30s to 41 after it dropped a 4-2 decision at last-place Santa Clara last week before closing the series with a pair of wins to clinch the No. 1 seed for this week’s four-team WCC tournament at Banner Island Ballpark in Stockton, Calif. There are bad losses, even in baseball, and that one could be devastating.
BYU will open against No. 4 seed Loyola Marymount at 4 p.m. MDT Thursday in the double-elimination event. The tournament champion gets the league’s automatic berth into the NCAAs.
Has BYU done enough to get an at-large bid if it doesn’t “take care of business,” as star slugger Brock Hale puts it, and win the WCC tournament title? Coach Mike Littlewood says it has, but of course he doesn’t have a vote.
“I feel like we should be in, yeah,” Littlewood said. “I look where our RPI is now, and our body of work, and I really feel that like we are a regional-type team. But you just never know.”
WCC BASEBALL TOURNAMENT
At Banner Island Ballpark, Stockton, Calif.
No. 1 BYU vs. No. 4 Loyola Marymount, 4 p.m. MDT
No. 2 Gonzaga vs. No. 3 Saint Mary’s, 8 p.m. MDT
Thursday’s losers, 1 p.m. MDT
Thursday’s winners, 4:30 p.m. MDT
Game 5: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser, 8:30 p.m. MDT
So Littlewood’s message to the team as they gathered for practice Monday for the first time since celebrating the outright championship on the plane ride back from the Bay Area on Saturday, Hale and sophomore star Jackson Cluff said, was that they can’t take anything for granted.
“We think we need to win the tournament to get to regionals,” Hale said. “Winning the regular-season championship feels good, but it won’t mean as much if we don’t make the NCAAs. No one wants to leave it up to someone else to decide whether we get in or not.”
Littlewood and Hale both pointed to two years ago, when Gonzaga won the regular season title but was upset by BYU in the tournament championship game. The Cougars went dancing, the Zags stayed home.
“I feel like if we get to the championship game, we are probably a lock for that, but it is out of [our hands],” Littlewood said.
In his seventh year at BYU, Littlewood surmises that BYU’s rule forbidding Sunday play could “come into play” when the committee sits down to pick the last few at-large teams.
“I mean, they are human beings,” he said. “It is not like RPI where the quadratic formula is deciding it or some algorithms are deciding where you are. It is people.
“And if someone says, ‘we don’t want to move our pitching up to Thursday, Friday, Saturday,’ then maybe [BYU] gets bumped. Those are just the facts of life. I would rather win it and be OK. I would think our body of work is proof enough.”
Cluff and Hale said the other message from the coaches is that they need to relax and get back to playing like they did a few weeks ago.
The Cougars didn’t play their best baseball in going 2-1 at Santa Clara, all parties agreed. Senior third baseman Casey Jacobsen, the WCC Player of the Week, said the Cougars were playing not to lose instead of playing to win.
“We have to be confident and understand that we want to be in control of whether we play more baseball or not,” said Cluff, who will be BYU’s top draft prospect next month. “We have to relax, focus and play BYU baseball. If we do that, we will be just fine.”