FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - The Washington State baseball team just arrived in Fayetteville, but designated hitter Matt Fanelli already is talking about how badly he wants to be somewhere else.
No offense, Fayetteville. It’s just that the former Capital High School standout and his teammates have something bigger and better in mind – a trip to the College World Series.
“We’re five straight wins away from going to Omaha,” Fanelli said Thursday afternoon after the Cougars wrapped up their final practice before opening play tonight in the NCAA tournament.
The 23rd-ranked Cougars (34-20) face unranked Kansas State (36-20) at 5:05 p.m. PDT at Baum Stadium, home of the Arkansas Razorbacks.
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The Cougars, who have 18 come-from-behind wins this season, are seeded second in the double-elimination Fayetteville Regional. The Wildcats are seeded third.
Temperatures in the 90s and high humidity are forecast for the weekend.
“We’ve played in some really bad weather; this is heaven for us,” said Fanelli, a senior.
Arkansas hopes to draw crowds of 7,000-plus at Baum, where fans are welcome to load up coolers with beer in the grass picnic area beyond the left-field fence.
Washington State opened the 2009 season with three close losses at Arkansas.
“It’s definitely good to have played here before … it’s a beautiful stadium,” said WSU second baseman Cody Bartlett, a junior out of Kentwood High.
Arkansas (40-18), which is ranked 15th, is the No. 1 seed. The Razorbacks take on unranked Grambling (La.) State at 12:05 p.m. The fourth-seeded Tigers are 22-30, but they’ve won their past six games.
Video of all of the games in Fayetteville will be streamed online for free at www.arkansasrazorbacks.com.
The Cougars’ games will not be broadcast on radio in Western Washington, but WSU’s radio feed will be available for free at www.wsucougars.com.
Washington State and Kansas State are making their second straight trips to regional tournaments after struggling for years. Both teams are known more for scrappiness than raw talent.
WSU has won 12 of its past 15 games; K-State is 1-4 over the past five games.
“They execute extremely well,” K-State coach Brad Hill said of the Cougars. “They compete really well.”
Junior right-hander Chad Arnold (5-3, 3.47) will start on the mound for the Cougars tonight. K-State will counter with sophomore left-hander Kyle Hunter (9-2, 4.50).
The Wildcats have a .323-.293 edge over WSU in team batting average, and the Cougars have not fared as well against left-handers as they have against right-handers.
Three K-State batters have higher batting averages than WSU leader Brett Jacobs (.358). Sophomore center fielder Nick Martini leads the Big 12 Conference with a .416 average and has reached base safely in all 56 games.
Hunter has been Kansas State’s only consistent starting pitcher, but the bullpen has been solid. WSU owns a lower team earned run average than K-State (4.57-5.44) despite playing in the Pacific-10 Conference, which sent eight teams to the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats have stolen almost twice as many bases as WSU (114-61) and have four fewer errors (59-63). WSU ranks second in the nation with 74 double plays.