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WSU baseball blows late lead to Arkansas

NORMAN, Okla. -- Washington State's improbable baseball season is one loss away from coming to an end, courtesy of an improbable collapse.

The light-hitting Arkansas Razorbacks, trailing 3-1 after seven innings and showing few discernible signs of life, exploded for eight runs in the eighth inning to down Washington State 10-3 Friday afternoon in the opening game of the Norman Regional.

The double-elimination tournament resumes today at the University of Oklahoma's Dale Mitchell Park. The 24th-ranked Cougars (31-24) play at 11 a.m. against unranked Wichita State (30-26), which beat ninth-ranked Oklahoma 5-4.

The third-seeded Cougars set themselves up for failure when they left men on base (all in the first seven innings), including five at third base. Still, they were cruising in their first regional game in 19 years until the fateful eighth inning, when six hits, a hit batter and a costly error spelled disaster.

"The game changed so fast," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "We were struggling."

Indeed, the second-seeded Razorbacks -- 274th among 288 ranked teams in NCAA Division I with a .267 batting average coming into the day -- had scraped together just one run on three hits through seven innings. Cougar standout Matt Way struck out 10 in six innings before leaving with a tight forearm, and hard-throwing freshman Adam Conley retired the side in order in the seventh.

When Ben Tschepikow opened the eighth with a chopper that bounced over first baseman Matt Fanelli's head for a double, the Cougars brought in relief ace Jeremy Johnson. He retired the first man he faced, then gave up five hits before James Wise was brought in to get the final out -- and promptly gave up a three-run homer to Scott Lyons on his first pitch.

Six of the runs charged to Johnson (6-2) were unearned thanks to a somewhat high throw by shortstop Shea Vucinich that went off the tip of Fanelli's glove at first. Still, it was a stunningly bad outing for Johnson, who has nine saves and is expected to bypass his senior year to turn pro.

"Our bullpen has been very strong all year," Way said. "It happens sometimes. It's just baseball."

WSU took a 2-1 lead in the third inning when the first four Cougar batters singled. Vucinich led off the seventh with a triple and scored to make it 3-1, but the Cougars left the bases loaded that inning when freshman right fielder Jarrod McKinney made a spectacular, diving catch off Fanelli's slicing drive to the warning track.

"If we don't catch that ball," Van Horn said, "they're going to score three runs, we're down 6-1 and it's probably over."

The Razorbacks, who started four freshmen and had two starters batting under .200, improved to 35-22. The Razorbacks are ranked no higher than 23rd in the three most publicized polls, but Arkansas is No. 21 in a writers poll that barely gave any votes to WSU.

-- Extra innings: Way struck out nine in the first four innings, but he insisted, "I didn't have my best stuff." Van Horn wasn't buying it. "There's probably not a better left-handed (college) pitcher in the country," the veteran coach said. ... Way, one of the national leaders in strikeouts, bumped his season total to 124. Aaron Sele had set the school record of 121 in 1990. ... A few dozen Cougar fans were sprinkled about the sun-kissed crowd of 1,636. The Arkansas campus is about 200 miles from Norman; Pullman is about 1,300 miles away. ... The eight runs in a single inning was a season high for Arkansas and against WSU.