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Arizona disappointed, but not surprised, to miss NCAA Tournament

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The Wildcats were inconsistent all year, and dropped too many winnable games

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Arizona vs Coastal Carolina Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Once the regular season ended Saturday, Jay Johnson dialed up members of the selection committee and started pleading his case for why the Arizona Wildcats deserved to be in the NCAA Tournament.

“I felt like I was trying to run for president,” the UA head coach said, “and we made some strong arguments.”

Not strong enough.

Arizona was one of the first four teams out of the tournament, missing the postseason for the first time in Johnson’s UA tenure by the slimmest of margins.

The third-year head coach was “very disappointed” by the outcome, but not surprised.

“I think being listed as the first team out kind of summed up our season,” he said. “There were a few games that we left on the table where we didn’t perform well enough to win.”

The Wildcats went 34-22 but 14-16 in the Pac-12. NCAA baseball tournament chair Ray Tanner said that sub-.500 conference records go against teams on the bubble.

And the Wildcats weren’t spectacular enough in other metrics — RPI, strength of schedule, etc. — to overcome that.

Johnson and Arizona players thought the selection process was fair. There was no SEC bias or disrespect of the Pac-12, they said.

On the contrary, Johnson said the Pac-12 needs to “look at what we’re doing as a league” since it only placed four teams in the tournament for the third straight year.

“Yeah, we’re kind of bummed out, but the play reflects the position we put ourselves in,” said UA first baseman Alfonso Rivas. “Our season was up and down. We weren’t as consistent as we wanted to be.”

“We left it to [the committee] and like Johnson said, we can’t leave those kind of things in someone else’s hands,” added UA catcher Cesar Salazar. “It’s 100 percent on us. We needed to play better baseball.”

Only slightly better baseball, really. The Wildcats lost 13 games by one run, and Johnson pointed to several contests they could have easily won.

They blew late leads in losses to Minnesota, Michigan State, San Diego State, and Stanford among others. They lost 1-0 to Arkansas. They lost to a 23-32 San Diego team. They were swept by Washington and Cal. They lost a series to last-place Utah, and they dropped a game to lowly Washington State.

“All those things are going to come back to bite you,” Johnson said.

Rivas said it’s easy to agonize over what could have been, but believes it’s best to accept the outcome and move on.

Salazar, a junior who is likely leaving for the MLB Draft, had a different mindset.

He regrets not coming through in Friday’s 2-1 loss to Oregon when he struck out with the bases loaded in the ninth inning.

A base-hit there, and Arizona’s season might still be alive.

“The margin for error is super small,” Salazar said. “We were one win away from making to the Regional. Right now I really understand how difficult it is and now I know when Johnson says every game is a Super Bowl … what it really means.”

But those one-run losses were caused by poor execution, not a lack of effort or concentration, Johnson said.

“We just needed to be one or two games better than we were,” Johnson said. “We’re going to continue to improve the moral toughness of the program by taking responsibility for it.

“With that being said, they did accomplish some things. Nobody’s going to tell me this was a bad team or not a good season. Is it the exact season we wanted? No, but we’re going to take responsibility for it and we’re going to move forward. And if it fuels them? Great. But if we’re on this day and in the postseason the next year or two years or three years, we’re not going to point to today as a turning point.

“But I do think it’s a really good life lesson. They knew this was possible and like I said, this was not for a lack of focus, concentration, effort, valuing every game. We went 10-1 on Tuesdays. And sometimes those are trap games. The only one we lost was to the No. 5 national seed (Arkansas). So I’m at peace with it, but it hurts. I mean, this hurts badly and there’ll be a lot of reflection within the organization.”

Johnson said there’s no coach in the country that reflects and evaluates on shortcomings more than him.

When Arizona was announced as one of the first four teams out, he walked up to the TV in the UA clubhouse, snapped a picture, and made it the screensaver on his computer.

Johnson said it’s going to remain there for the rest of his coaching career to remind him that there’s always room for improvement.

“I mean, this wasn’t a surprise. We don’t need any more motivation, but yeah, reflection for sure,” Johnson said. “I mean we’re changing a little bit of how we’re doing individual meetings with the players that could return tomorrow. It’s normally the worst day of the year because, unless you won the national championship, you lost. We’re not doing them today.

“I’m going to sit in a room with my coaching staff and reflect on every single player on the 2019 roster before I meet with the players, and we got to get these guys out of here because they got to go play summer ball. But we’re not doing that until we comb through every detail. So it’s more of, we have a good process of winning and we’ll make it even better through this.”