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Arizona baseball looks to snap losing streak at Utah

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The Wildcats have never beaten the Utes in the Jay Johnson Era

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Arizona vs Oklahoma State Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats head to Salt Lake City this weekend for a three-game series against the Utah Utes.

Arizona and Utah have played 71 games all-time against each other, and UA leads the series, 56-15.

Last year, Utah swept Arizona at Hi Corbett.

In 2017, Arizona allowed 19 runs in the first two games, with the bullpen giving up most of them.

UA coach Jay Johnson is 0-6 against the Utes, though that record is a bit misleading (more on that later).

Arizona (23-15, 6-9 Pac-12)

The Wildcats look to get back on track after getting swept by Stanford last weekend in Tucson. The Arizona bullpen got hammered. After giving up five runs Friday, they gave up another five in the ninth on Saturday and struggled on Sunday.

Arizona offensively was hampered by injuries. Catcher Cesar Salazar missed part of the weekend series after sustaining a concussion. Centerfielder Cal Stevenson missed the entire series with an injured hand he received against USC a couple of weeks ago.

Despite these injuries, and a sweep by Stanford, Arizona has won 11 of its last 16 games coming into the weekend.

Arizona will face pitchers Tomas Tanner (2-2, 5.33) and Brett Brocoff (2-6, 6.70) in two of the three games of the series.

The Wildcats’ offense has caught fire of late, raising their team batting average from .251 to .282 since March 18.

Utah (10-28, 5-11 Pac-12)

Utah is in the middle of a miserable season. It is last in the Pac-12 both in conference record and overall record. The Utes have fallen far from the 15-15 conference record and 27-24 overall record they posted last year.

Utah’s issue comes from its pitching. No Ute has an earned run average below 3.00, and only one pitcher has an ERA below 4.00.

At the same time, Utah is just seventh in the Pac-12 in batting average (.267).

Utah enters Friday’s matchup with a win in its most recent game, an 8-4 victory at Brigham Young. But the Utes were swept in their last conference series against Arizona State in Phoenix last weekend.

This weekend does not get any easier for Utah hitters as they have to face the hot Cody Deason and Michael Flynn.

Players to watch

Arizona

Freshman SS Jacob Blas — Last Saturday, Blas had a clutch inside-the-park home run to give Arizona a late lead on Stanford in the eighth inning. Coming into this series, Blas is hitting .280 with a .393 on base percentage, while starting 20 of the 28 games he has played in.

Blas and fellow freshman Tate Soderstrom combined to hit 8-for-16 against Stanford last with two doubles and a home run. They could put up even bigger numbers against Utah’s scuffling pitching staff.

Also watch for first baseman Alfonso Rivas, who has a 10-game hitting streak, and is hitting a team-high .353.

Junior RHP Cody Deason — Arizona’s ace has a 2.20 ERA and a 4-3 record through nine starts. If Arizona is to advance in the postseason, Deason will have to continue to pitch at the level he has so far.

Deason did seemed to run out of gas last Friday against Stanford in the seventh inning so the altitude of Utah could be a challenge if he is not prepared.

Senior OF Cal Stevenson & Junior C Cesar Salazar — Stevenson and Salazar are two of Arizona’s best players, but have both been out of the lineup lately due to injury. Stevenson took a pitch to the hand two weeks at USC on April 15 and has barely played since. Salazar exited last Saturday’s game against Stanford and missed Sunday’s game after taking a few foul balls to the mask.

Stevenson and Salazar are not only key hitters, but important leaders as well. Arizona needs them to get healthy as soon as possible.

Utah

Junior RHP Austin Moore — Moore went all the way until March 30 without giving up more than one run in an outing, but he has allowed two or more runs in four of his last five outings, including five runs (four earned) at ASU last weekend. Moore had some nice outings against quality opponents earlier in the year, so it will be interesting to see which version of him shows up.

Junior OF/DH Dashawn Kiersey Jr. — Utah’s lead-off hitter is batting .366 and has hits in almost every game this season. His play has been outstanding and he is sure to be a high draft pick in June.

Keirsey is fourth in the Pac-12 in hits per game (1.45), tied for ninth in hits (48) and 10th in slugging percentage (.573). He has dealt with injuries this season, and while they haven’t hampered his production, they have forced him to DH.

Three things to watch

Both bullpens — Arizona and Utah have had issues with their bullpens, especially on Sundays, when teams tend to use their relievers heavily.

Johnson has never defeated Utah since arriving at Arizona prior to the 2016 season, and that’s mostly because of UA’s bullpen. Two years ago, Arizona led all three games of the series against Utah until the seventh inning or later, but still got swept.

A similar sequence happened last season, too. So no lead will be safe in Salt Lake City. For either team.

The altitude — Salt Lake City is over 4,200 feet above sea level. Utah players live in this environment but Arizona players are not used to it. Arizona likes to be active on the basepaths and the short game, but it has to be careful about adjusting to such high elevation.

Youth — Johnson likes to sprinkle freshmen throughout Arizona’s lineup, but the injuries to Salazar and Stevenson mean freshmen are taking on bigger roles than ever, as have young pitchers.

Blas and Soderstrom have fared well lately, but some of UA’s young pitchers have not.

Postseason picture

Arizona’s RPI dropped from 31 to 42 after being swept by Stanford. One projection has the Wildcats as the No. 3 seed in the Lubbock Regional. That’s where UA’s season ended last year.

If Arizona gets swept by Utah again, its postseason aspirations could be in serious jeopardy.

Series info

Game 1 — Friday at 5 p.m.

Game 2 — Saturday at noon

Game 3 — Sunday at noon

All games will be live streamed here.

Pac-12 standings