“We’re playing for each other” — Red-hot BYU baseball storms into WCC tournament

BYU baseball isn’t supposed to be here.

The Cougars lost their best hitter, Andrew Pintar, after just 17 games. They stumbled in early conference play, starting a mediocre 7-10 against WCC opponents. Most notably, head coach Mike Littlewood jumped ship midway through the season, leaving his players blindsided and shocked after 10 years at BYU. Just one of those misfortunes would be enough to derail the entire season, and BYU has had to deal with all three.

Baseball is nothing if not unpredictable. The very fabric of the game induces the miraculous. Just ask this year’s Cougars, who beat the odds in rallying to win 11 of their final 13 games to storm into a playoff spot, where they’ll face LMU Wednesday night.

BYU celebrates its 12th-inning walk-off win against Pacific on May 12. (BYU photo)

“We’ve just clicked in how we play together, we’re all playing for each other and we trust that every guy on the team can get the job done,” centerfielder Mitch McIntyre said. “We’ve embraced having that rally behind us which has helped us click more to get over the hump.”

After losing four of five games and hovering around the .500 mark at the end of April, the Cougars went on a nine-game winning streak — including a pair of dramatic, extra inning walk-off victories — to flip the script for their season.

Mitch McIntyre takes a swing against San Diego on April 21. The fifth-year senior hit .275 with a team-high .416 on base percentage with 33 runs batted in for the Cougars. (BYU photo)

“We had every reason to go down and fold, but it just shows the maturity of this team,” pitcher Peyton Cole said of the late-season surge. “We had nothing to lose at that point, so we played for each other more, we came together as a team and moved forward.. as the confidence grows, everything grows.”

While BYU did garner 13 All-WCC selections on the season — with third baseman Austin Deming earning First Team honors — contributions for victory have come from the entirety of the roster, with interim head coach Trent Pratt pushing all the right buttons for his tight-knit yet relaxed squad that has erased all traces of selfishness from the clubhouse.

“Pretty much everyone on the team has had their moment to help us win a ballgame,” McIntyre said. “Whether it’s losing our head coach or just the ups and downs of baseball, it’s all brought us closer together and has really helped us prepare for the postseason. We could put any guy on the roster in the starting lineup and feel comfortable.”

McIntyre, a fifth-year senior and veteran leader for the Cougars, said this year’s team has been “the tightest” group he’s played with at BYU, crediting Pratt for quickly fostering a culture of positive reinforcement and easing the mounting pressure of early hardship. Assuming head coaching duties on April 11, Pratt has made a real case to be the permanent solution in BYU’s dugout with a 16-8 record under his belt thus far.

Head coach Trent Pratt greets his team prior to BYU’s contest against Utah on May 17. The Cougars have caught fire with Pratt as their interim head coach. (BYU photo)

“Ever since (Pratt) became the head coach, he’s done a great job of making people feel more relaxed and have that little league mentality of going out there to play the game and have fun because you love it,” McIntyre said. “We’re starting to play right in the direction of our best baseball of the year. This should be an exciting tournament for us.. we should surprise a lot of people.”

BYU leads the WCC in home runs (47), runs batted in (305) and sports the conference’s lowest earned run average on the mound (3.73). The bullpen — featuring hurlers who consistently clock in the mid-90s who have saved the Cougars plenty of times in the past month — has helped set BYU apart from the competition and gives Pratt a whole deck of aces up his sleeve for the postseason.

Jack Sterner pitches against Pacific on May 12. In 13 starts for the Cougars, Sterner went 4-3 with a 3.26 ERA and 61 strikeouts. (BYU photo)

“This is the most talented pitching staff i’ve played with at BYU,” McIntyre said. “Any situation we get into, we have a guy who can come in and get the job done. Good pitching takes the pressure off of our hitters.”

“If we score any runs at all, our chances of winning are nearly a hundred percent just since our pitching is on lockdown,” Cole added.

Since the WCC tournament has not been played since 2019, the playoffs are unfamiliar territory for many players on BYU’s roster, with McIntyre and Deming among the only Cougars with legitimate postseason experience.

“We can’t let the stage get too big for us,” Cole said. “Sometimes we tighten up in big situations, but if we just treat (the postseason) like a normal game, I don’t think anyone can beat us with our talent.”

Ozzie Pratt prepares for a throw to first against Utah on May 17. The freshman Pratt hit .288 and scored 27 runs while filling in for injured Andrew Pintar. (BYU photo)

Baseball is all about catching fire at the right time, which the Cougars know too well. While finishing the season on a tear, Pratt’s squad hopes that their best baseball is still ahead of them, although recent success has changed their entire outlook on the field.

“Since we’ve been so hot, we actually feel like we can and are going to win,” Cole said. “We always know it’s a possibility, but now we have the confidence to make it a reality.”

BYU, the tournament four seed, faces fifth-seeded LMU Wednesday at 8 p.m. MST. Right-hander Jack Sterner will be on the mound for the Cougars.

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