There have been two true outcomes in Arizona’s Pac-12 series this season: sweep or be swept.
The Wildcats opened conference play by taking all three from Cal at home, then went on the road for back-to-back weekends and failed to pick up a win at either UCLA or ASU. The six straight Pac-12 losses are the most since a similar stretch (at UCLA and ASU, ironically) in 2019.
Tyler Casagrande is one of three current UA players that were on that 2019 squad, and he remembers that skid. He also remembers what happened next.
“I remember being at home a lot ... taking advantage of being here because we play well here,” he said.
Arizona ended up sweeping Washington at home, part of a 22-10 record that season at Hi Corbett Field.
The Wildcats are in the midst of an 8-game homestand at Hi Corbett, continuing this weekend with a 3-game series against Oregon. They’re 10-2 at home have won their last 10, including Tuesday’s 10-9, 10-inning victory over Grand Canyon.
Head coach Chip Hale didn’t get to see the end of that one in person, as he was ejected in the seventh inning. In his absence, Arizona fell behind 9-8 only to tie the game in the ninth and walk it off in the 10th.
“He’s just as invested in it as we are, and he puts a lot of emotion and a lot of time and effort into this ball team and ballpark,” centerfielder Mac Bingham said of Hale. “I think he just wants the best for us, and that makes us feel good. It makes us feel wanted and special. And we want to win for him, obviously. And I think it just fired everyone up a little bit more.”
Here’s what to watch for when Arizona (14-9, 3-6 Pac-12) hosts Oregon (15-7, 3-3):
An aggressive opponent
Oregon leads the Pac-12 with 37 home runs, with 10 of those in conference play, but has also drawn the fewest walks (80) of any team in the league. The Ducks also like to run, their 39 total stolen base attempts second-most in the Pac-12 with 23 successful steals.
“They’re one of the teams in the preseason that we kind of marked as being a top-level Pac-12 team and they’ve shown that already,” Hale said. “We have to be ready to play.”
Arizona had been good at not allowing the long ball until last weekend, giving up only 12 in the first 19 games before ASU launched seven. Only nine homers have been yielded at spacious Hi Corbett, compared to 17 for the Wildcats at home, and their pitchers are allowing only 3.23 walks per nine innings to rank 15th nationally.
Holding runners on has been a different story.
The UA has thrown out only six of 27 potential base runners, all by Cameron LaLiberte, while Tommy Splaine has failed to throw out any of the 15 guys who have run against him. That compares to 2022, when the presence of Daniel Susac behind the plate resulted in only 33 total attempts (and 11 players caught stealing.
“That’s one thing that we have not been great at,” Hale said. “We’ve have not been great at shutting down the running game, so we have to do a better job. Our catchers have thrown a couple guys out in the last week, which is encouraging, but we have to do a better job of that.
Hale said Arizona tries to throw over to first as much as possible to keep runners honest, and the pitchers do their best to be quick in their delivery, but there’s really only one foolproof way to deal with base stealers.
“The best thing is just keep them off base,” Hale said.
Junior right-hander TJ Nichols remains the Friday night starter, while lefty Bradon Zastrow will stay in the Saturday spot despite throwing 1.1 innings of relief on Tuesday. Sunday’s starter is TBD, and likely a toss-up between RHPs Aiden May and Anthony ‘Tonko’ Susac.
Susac threw 59 pitches over 3.2 innings Tuesday, while May gave up six runs in four-plus last Sunday at ASU.
Nichols is the only UA starter to go more than five innings in the past eight games, and for the season the Wildcats are getting only 4.8 innings per start. That’s started to tax the bullpen, which has started to show some cracks after looking very solid earlier this season.
“We are not really pitching at our best,” Hale said. “I think a couple weeks ago, we really felt good about how we were pitching, and that’s something we just have to get better at. And that’s how baseball is, you go from one week to the next and the hitting might be top notch, the pitching might be good and then it flips back and forth.”
Perfect example: sophomore left-hander Eric Orloff had recorded six consecutive scoreless outings before inheriting a bases-loaded, no-out jam at ASU on Saturday. He got out of that without allowing a run and threw a clean second inning but then was pulled after giving up a leadoff single in his third frame.
Next time out, on Tuesday, he hit two batters and walked another and didn’t get anyone out.
“Even dealing with Major League pitchers, you’re gonna go through these periods of a guy being on top of his game and then all of a sudden you’re gonna have a stinker, so maybe that was his one,” Hale said. “The problem is when we start to sort of get two or three in a row, so we got to be real careful with that. This is a results-oriented game. We talk about process and stuff, but we get into these games we’re gonna have to get guys that get the results.”
That’s what the UA is still looking for from freshman righty Casey Hintz, whose 10 appearances are tied for third-most on the team. He has an 8.22 ERA in 7.2 innings, with opponents batting .387 against him (.462 in Pac-12 play).
“He has not had the success that we thought he was gonna have,” Hale said. “Early he was really big for us. His sinker and his changeup are really good pitches, and they just have not been able to get down and the guys have been hitting him pretty well. The key was he threw strikes. We liked the fact that he came after hitters. If it was gonna happen, it’s gonna happen quick and usually it was a ground ball. Some of these ground balls now are getting through the infield. He’s hit a few guys, he left a changeup up at UCLA. Those are things that happen, especially with freshmen, and we have to coach them up and get him better.”
Leaning on the defense
Arizona pitchers are averaging 10.08 strikeouts per nine innings in Pac-12 play, second-best in the league, and Pac-12 opponents are hitting .277.
The latter is a few ticks better than a year ago, but where there’s been massive improvement has been in fielding balls put in play and making accurate throws. The Wildcats have a .978 fielding percentage, second in the Pac-12 and 40th in the nation, with only 19 errors in 23 games.
Last season the UA committed 66 errors in 64 games, with 18 multi-error games, leading to 55 unearned runs.
“It’s probably because I’m not in the infield anymore,” joked Casagrande, who started 16 games at second base a year ago. “I think Kiko (Romero) at first has been a huge addition, obviously offensively, but he’s a really good first baseman defensively. And then Tony (Bullard) being healthy again this year with his shoulder. All around I think this is the best defense we’ve had here in my five years. Everyone’s in their their natural position, too.”
Bullard has missed the last two games due to a concussion and isn’t likely to play again until at least Saturday. Freshman Mason White has taken over that spot for the time being.
Arizona’s 10 consecutive home wins are its most since winning 19 in a row between 2016-17. It has won five straight Pac-12 home games, dropping 10 in a row in league play on the road. The UA also had an 9-game overall win streak earlier this season.
Oregon has been equally streaky this year, winning its first four before getting swept at home by UC-Santa Barbara. The Ducks then won five straight, lost four in a row and bring a 6-game win streak to Tucson.
“Baseball is just a bunch of up and down,” Bingham said. “It’s a roller coaster. You ride it when it’s high, and when it’s low, it’s really low. It’ll all work itself out, every team is gonna go through it. I don’t think anyone’s really down on this team. We’re still all confident in what we have and what we’re capable of. So I think you just kind of have to ride the wave.”