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Arizona baseball: Many questions surround Wildcats heading into second half of Pac-12 play

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What will this team end up being?

Pitching coach Dave Lawn and catcher Cesar Salazar look on
Pitching coach Dave Lawn and catcher Cesar Salazar look on
Jason Bartel

On Friday night, the Arizona Wildcats begin the second half of conference play. They'll start it by traveling to Berkeley to take on arguably the best team in the Pac-12, the California Golden Bears.

Game times, TV, pitchers:

Fri. 7 p.m.: RHP Nathan Bannister (5-1, 2.92) vs. RHP Ryan Mason (5-2, 2.91)

Sat. 7 p.m.: (ESPNU) LHP JC Cloney (3-2, 2.72) vs. RHP Jeff Bain (3-2, 3.35)

Sun. 1 p.m.: RHP Bobby Dalbec (7-3, 2.96) vs. LHP Matt Ladrech (3-3, 3.76)

Cal will still be without star pitcher Daulton Jefferies, who is recovering from a shoulder injury.

Arizona had a chance to get above .500 in Pac-12 play heading into this weekend, but with two outs in the ninth, Cody Moffett gave up an inside-the-park HR to Stanford, allowing the Cardinal to finish off a big comeback to avoid the sweep.

Now at 7-8 in conference play, 23-14 overall, and coming off an extremely uninspired performance against New Mexico State on Wednesday, there are still many questions facing this team, and where it can end up.

Luckily for the Wildcats, the Pac-12 as a whole has been a complete mess this year.

As it stands after Thursday night's action, Arizona is one of five teams that has seven conference wins, and the other four teams are the big guns of this conference (Stanford, Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA). Only Utah (8-5), Washington (9-6) and Cal (9-6) have more than seven wins.

Relief Pitching

I've written about this time and time again, but the pitching staff is the biggest question for the Wildcats moving forward. After 37 games now, which is the most of any Pac-12 team to this point in the year, Arizona has actually dropped the team ERA down to 3.92, moving up to 6th of the 11 conference teams. The 3.93 ERA in conference games is the 4th-best mark in the Pac-12.

This stems from last weekend's performances by the starting pitchers against Stanford. Bannister has been the most consistent and best pitcher this year, slotting him for that Friday night role moving forward. And Dalbec has shown that he's the best option as the third starter.

But last weekend, Cloney was held out of the rotation due to "internal issues". What that means head coach Jay Johnson wouldn't elaborate on, but it adds another layer to the story. Arizona was fortunate to get by far the best outing of Cameron Ming's career on Saturday. Now we'll see Cloney on national TV....maybe. He was listed in the rotation for the Stanford series before suddenly being pulled on Saturday afternoon.

The bullpen remains the biggest concern for the Wildcats. That showed in Wednesday's game against NMSU. Kevin Ginkel looked alright, but was done in by errors. Matt Hartman was good for the most part. And Alfonso Rivas looked good at the end of the game. But outside of that, it was not stellar, and Johnson said so himself.

Arizona is depending on getting long, effective starts from all three starters. Not exactly a place you want to be in, because if one fails, that game becomes a crapshoot at best. Cloney, Dalbec and Bannister have the three best ERAs on the team this year, and are the only three below 3.00. Everyone else has a 3.60 or higher.

Defense

One issue that's suddenly popped up is Arizona's defense. In conference games, they have the 7th-highest mark despite still sitting 22nd in the country over the course of the entire season. This shows a recent lack of sharpness in the field, and has been costly at the most inopportune times.

This also plays into the lineup issue that we've seen recently. Can JJ Matijevic hold it down at second? Who plays third when Dalbec pitches? Is Kyle Lewis a good enough option in the field? What's happened to Louis Boyd? There are tons of questions about the lineup and who to use in the field, and that's not a good thing at this point in the season.

Big bats

If you had said before the year that Dalbec would have the lowest batting average among regular starters, most people probably wouldn't have believed you. But here we are, with the star junior currently hitting .215, and has only connected on four home runs after mashing 15 last season. He doesn't even lead the team in home runs. That distinction belongs to Ryan Aguilar and his quintet of round-trippers.

Lately, Matijevic has turned it on, sort of like how last year turned out. But these were the two guys that were supposed to anchor this Arizona lineup. Instead, they are the reason it goes adrift more often than not. It's been a bizarre year at the plate.

Injuries

We won't ever be told the full severity of these two injuries, but Zach Gibbons and Cesar Salazar have certainly been dealing with physical issues that last several weeks. Gibbons was hurt during the Utah series, an issue dubbed as an "upper-body injury" a la the NHL. It doesn't seem to have hampered his performance at the plate (team-leading .359 batting average, .352 in Pac-12 games), but you can tell he's not exactly full go in the field.

On Salazar's end, he has been taken out of several games this year with various hand or head injuries. Since Salazar was taken out of the game against Washington State, Ryan Haug has started four of the six games, and Salazar was unable to complete the other two games.

Fortunately for the Wildcats, Haug and Salazar are very similar players, both at the plate and crouching behind it. If anything, Haug may actually be the better overall athlete, so this injury isn't as bad, but if something were to happen to Haug, all of the sudden we're looking at Sawyer Gieseke getting some time at catcher.

Schedule

Arizona has arguably played the lesser half of its schedule, and is about to take on the real tests in this conference. Of the five remaining series, four of them are against preseason top-25 teams, with ASU being the lone exception. Going on the road against Cal and USC the next two weeks will be a challenge. Having Oregon State and ASU at home the following two weeks is a benefit, but closing the Pac-12 season at a surging Oregon team is a tough draw as well.

The Wildcats have put up a 7-8 record against the lesser-talented teams. What will they do against the tougher, deeper teams?

That's the biggest question of them all.