Having won three straight games, Arizona baseball faces a huge test starting Friday, when they play a weekend series against No. 1 UCLA in Los Angeles.
“It’s an opportunity,” UA head coach Jay Johnson said earlier this week, “I think it will do two things - it will show the best of our guys in terms of competitiveness, and it will probably expose some things we still need to improve on. Both of those things are okay.”
The Wildcats, who will be playing without one their best players in Matt Fraizer, come into the series against the Bruins as one of the best offensive teams in the country, while UCLA has been one of the top pitching teams in college baseball in 2019.
Here are three major keys for Arizona this weekend, as they look to get what would be some massive RPI wins on the road against the top ranked Bruins.
Give the offense a chance
Going up against a UCLA pitching staff that doesn’t allow many runs, the pressure on the Wildcats’ pitchers and their defense is even higher than usual this weekend.
While the offense has been clicking so far this year, Arizona’s pitching and defense has been among the worst in the Pac-12.
The Wildcats (13-7, 2-1 Pac-12) have easily left two or three wins on the table because of poor defense and not being able to consistently throw strikes.
They are currently last in the conference in errors and fielding percentage, while also being bottom in runs allowed and in the bottom four schools in terms of team ERA.
The Wildcats’ offense has typically been able to make up for the poor pitching and fielding, posting a conference leading 10.5 runs per game, but that probably won’t be the case this weekend.
Going up against a Bruins’ team who’ve ridden one of the best pitching staffs in the nation all the way to the number one ranking, it will be crucial that Arizona’s pitching is able to limit UCLA’s scoring opportunities and keep the game close enough that their offense will have a chance to make a difference.
It’s likely that if they are to come away with anything from this series, the Wildcats won’t be able to just blow the Bruins out of the water like they have in most of their wins in 2019. They will have to grind out some close, low-scoring victories.
To do so, their defense and pitching will have to be better than it’s been all season.
Johnson has tipped Avery Weems, Randy Labaut and Quinn Flanagan as the favorites to get the starts on the mound against the Bruins.
Keep having good at-bats
Despite their struggles on defense and on the mound, the Wildcats’ offense has been pretty much firing on all-cylinders this year.
Their 161 total runs scored are the third most in the entire country, while Arizona’s 233 hits are the sixth most in the NCAA.
A major part of their offensive success so far, has been the Wildcats’ habit of being smart at the plate and consistently getting deep into their at-bats – both things that Johnson harps on constantly.
The Cats 137 walks taken are the sixth most in the nation, while their on base percentage of .446 is the second highest mark in the country.
Both are testaments to Arizona’s good habits at the plate.
If the Wildcats are going to be able to beat UCLA, these habits are going to need to continue this weekend.
The Bruins currently lead the Pac-12 in strikeouts and team ERA while they are second only to Stanford in runs and hits allowed. Their number of strikeouts per nine innings, 10.9, is the eighth highest mark in the NCAA and their team ERA of 1.79 is second.
“It sounds like their hard to score runs against,” Johnson said, “That’s not a surprise. It’s been that way for a long time.”
The old baseball adage says that good pitching beats good hitting.
To prove that this doesn’t always hold true, the Wildcats will have to be extra smart at the plate this weekend in LA.
Cope without Fraizer
Losing Fraizer to a broken hamate bone certainly dealt a sizable blow to Arizona baseball for the foreseeable future.
Fraizer’s breakout season has been well documented and there is no doubt that he will be a big miss for the Wildcats this weekend in California.
“You can’t really quantify losing Matt right now,” Johnson said after announcing the injury on Tuesday.
Fraizer, who was leading the team with 28 RBIs and was batting .412 before the injury, will likely be replaced in centerfield by Donta Williams, who has been starting in left, while the corner outfield spots will most likely be rotated.
Against New Mexico State on Tuesday, Matt Dyer and Tate Soderstom got the nods in the Wildcats first game without Fraizer, while freshman Branden Boissierre and senior Justin Wylie are two other players who could begin to see more time after the injury.
Dyer, who has played mostly catcher and first base this season, told the media he got some time in the outfield at Oregon before transferring to the UA and said he is more than comfortable playing out there if needed.
He also said he believes that Arizona will be able to cope without Fraizer.
“He’s the type of guy who just wants the best for the team and wants to see us succeed,” Dyer said. “He’ll still be in our dugout, but it’s going to be something we’re going to have to get through. I don’t think it’s going to affect us playing wise.”
Going into the series against the No. 1 team in the country without one of their top talents, the Wildcats had better hope so.
First pitch between Arizona and UCLA is set for 6 p.m. MST. It is not being televised and there is no stream, but you can follow along here.