"Very strange, and I don't see it changing either to be honest with ya. This is an exaggeration, but it could be one of those deals where I wouldn't be shocked if everyone ended up 15-15."
These are Arizona Wildcats head coach Jay Johnson's sentiments on the state of the Pac-12 as we approach the halfway mark. After this weekend, the Wildcats, who currently have a conference record of 5-7, will have played 15 of their 30 conference games.
The Stanford Cardinal come to Tucson this weekend with a 6-3 Pac-12 record, and are 18-9 overall. So this is a big opportunity for the Wildcats.
Schedule, TV and probable pitchers:
Friday (6 PM PT, No TV, 1290 AM): RHP Nathan Bannister (4-1, 3.23 ERA) vs. RHP Tristan Beck (4-2, 1.93 ERA)
Saturday (7 PM PT, Pac-12 Networks, 1290 AM): RHP Bobby Dalbec (7-3, 3.07 ERA) vs. LHP Chris Castellanos (4-1, 3.89 ERA)
Sunday (1 PM PT, Pac-12 Networks, 1290 AM): LHP JC Cloney (3-2, 2.72 ERA) vs. TBA
The announcers will be Rich Celini and Arizona alum J.T. Snow. You can stream the video here, and the audio below:
"It's startling right now," Johnson said of the Pac-12 not having any teams in the top 30 of the RPI, and only three in the top 50 (Cal - 31, Oregon State - 32, and Washington - 50). "If the season ended today, there's two teams in the tournament from arguably the best conference in the country, and I think it's the opposite of an indication of how strong the league is."
"It's an issue, and I hope the NCAA Tournament committee takes in a lot of factors," continued Johnson. "I was looking at strength of schedule, and by season's end, we're going to play between 35 and 40 games against the top hundred. That speaks for itself."
Even with Coach Johnson's concern on the conference's standing in the RPI, as of right now, Arizona is still projected to be in the field by both D1Baseball and Baseball America. Entering Friday's game, Arizona is 67th in the RPI, and Stanford is 68th. Both sites also have Stanford barely in.
So yeah, pretty important series for the Wildcats.
Luckily for Arizona, this series is at home, and Nathan Bannister has been unbelievable at Hi Corbett this year. The senior righty hasn't given up a run in four of his five home starts, and currently holds a 0.83 home ERA in six appearances.
Johnson told me on Monday that this group of starters would likely be the trio for the rest of the year, but the order might change. I think the order we're seeing here is to give the greatest variability between days. You start with a soft-throwing right-hander in Bannister, then move to the hard-throwing Dalbec. And for the final game of the series, you switch arms and throw out Cloney. The JuCo transfer is a pretty good Sunday option too, as he has shown the ability to go late in games on a pretty consistent basis.
Stanford comes in to this weekend on a bit of a roll. They've won six of their last seven, including a one-game victory over the Pac-12 leaders, California.
The Cardinal pitching staff has been putting up ridiculous numbers this year. Their 2.43 ERA is 6th in the country, and give up the third-fewest hits per nine innings. This will test Arizona's offense, which is hitting at a .295 clip this year, the 2nd-best mark in the conference.
Besides the starters, the guy to watch out of the bullpen is Tyler Thorne. In 14 appearances this year, Thorne has an ERA of 0.96. Colton Hock will also factor in, bringing a 2-2 record, three saves, and a 1.59 ERA in 13 appearances.
The thing with Stanford is that their pitching staff has incredible depth and quality. No pitcher has an ERA over 4.50. Arizona has seven pitchers that have seen regular action above that number.
These are also the two best defensive teams in the conference, so any runs scored will have to come off some quality at bats and manufacturing runs, which would seem to favor the Wildcats.
Only one Stanford player that has started every game is hitting above .280, and that is shortstop Tommy Edman. The junior from San Diego has a batting average of .330, and has an on-base percentage of .412 in the leadoff spot.
Stanford is an interesting team, and one that relies on its pitching. Will it be able to hold off the Arizona bats in Tucson, or will the Wildcats pick up some quality home wins? Should be an exciting three days at Hi Corbett.