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Arizona baseball needs to get hot to make NCAA Tournament

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Not the best of starts to Pac-12 play for the Wildcats

Arizona pitching coach Dave Lawn meets with the Wildcat infield during the 2018 DQ Classic at US Bank Stadium
Brent Fields, frozenmoment.smugmug.com

The Arizona Wildcats are now two weekends into the Pac-12 baseball schedule, and have come out of it just 2-4 against the Washington schools.

It’s been what has happened on the Saturdays that may have the biggest impact on this team’s NCAA Tournament chances down the road.

UA was swept by Washington in Seattle, but the loss of LHP Randy Labaut will be the part of that trip that will have long-lasting implications.

Labaut threw 5 23 shutout innings in Arizona’s second game against UW, but was removed after he started feeling some discomfort in his left leg.

That discomfort quickly turned into something more serious.

Labaut was having trouble walking around Sunday morning, so he was sent to UW Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with compartment syndrome.

Emergency surgery was performed Sunday, and Labaut remained in Seattle to have a second procedure Wednesday before returning to Tucson on Thursday.

While Labaut’s long-term health is certainly the most important thing in this situation, his 1.71 ERA in five starts (seven games) this year will definitely be missed, especially for a team that has been relying on its pitching.

Arizona’s .261 team batting average is the worst it has been in a long time, but the team ERA of 2.50 is a marked improvement from last year, and has kept this team in many games. The Wildcats are 2-8 in one-run games in 2018, leading to the surprising 13-10 overall record.

And the Labaut absence was certainly noticed this Saturday vs. Washington State.

Avery Weems, who has been the most up-and-down of the regular pitchers this year, had one of those down moments against the Cougars giving up five runs while recording just two outs.

That was all WSU needed, holding on to a 5-4 win despite the Arizona pitching staff not allowing anyone to cross the plate for the final 8 1⁄3 innings.

This is a far cry from last year’s team, which everyone would have expected to come back from down 5-0 in the first and blast their way to an easy win.

One of the most obvious cases of this offensive drop off has been sophomore third baseman Nick Quintana, who hit his first home run of the season on Sunday in a 9-2 win to clinch the first conference series win of the year.

“I feel like the success I had last year... a lot of people or teammates kind of expect that from me, but at the same time I need to understand that if I don’t do so well there’s eight other dudes in the lineup that have been killing it,” Quintana said after Sunday’s game. “(The home run) is a little bit of a relief. I didn’t really know it was gonna go. I put a good swing on it.”

We’ll see if that home run and that game kind of get things going for Arizona’s bats, because they’re going to need to turn around their fortunes in a hurry.


NCAA Tournament Worries

Arizona will essentially hit the halfway point of the season this coming weekend when they host Nicholls State for three games before heading to Albuquerque for a single game vs. New Mexico the day after Easter.

And then the Wildcats get the big boys. Oregon State and Stanford, the two best teams in the conference (by far), are two of the next three conference series for Arizona.

By the end of that stretch, we should know exactly where Arizona stands as far as making the NCAA Tournament goes.

As of writing this, the Wildcats are 116th in the RPI. There’s no doubt Jay Johnson knows this since he’s told me before that he checks Warren Nolan frequently.

OSU and Stanford are both top four teams nationally, and since both come to Tucson this year, that’ll be a big chance for Arizona to get past a bunch of the teams in front of them in the RPI.

Besides the Beavers and Cardinal, there are three other Pac-12 teams hovering around 30th (Oregon, Cal, UCLA), but then there’s a huge drop down to ASU at 84. So it’ll be those two home series against the best teams in the conference that will likely make or break Arizona’s season at this point.

Nicholls State is 254th and are only 8-15 this year, so maybe that non-conference series will come at the best possible time for this team and give them momentum heading into the Oregon State series.

There’s still time, but Arizona will need to start changing their fortunes sooner rather than later if they want to be playing baseball in June.