What a difference a week can make.
Last Wednesday, Arizona baseball was fresh off a seven-game losing streak - the worst stretch of play since Jay Johnson took over as head coach in 2016.
By the culmination of the losing streak, the Wildcats’ record had dropped to under .500 (13-14) and to add insult to injury, they had been swept by their biggest rivals, ASU, for the first time in a decade.
With the prospect of missing the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season growing larger and larger, to say that last week was the low-point of Johnson’s tenure in Tucson would be accurate.
Fast-forward a week to this Wednesday however, and the vibe is totally different around a Wildcats’ squad which has now won four straight games, is back over .500 and that’s coming off an improbable, high-character 14-13 win over GCU on Tuesday night.
The victory over the Lopes, which came on the back of a three-game sweep of Washington at Hi Corbett, was a long, back-and-forth affair in which Arizona led 8-1 in the early going and trailed 13-8 late on, before scoring six runs over the final two innings to reclaim the lead in the top of the ninth.
It was another perfect representation of the Wildcats in 2019: the bullpen imploded and blew a huge lead, but Arizona’s impressive hitting was able to do just enough to make up for it in the end.
It was a gutsy, gutsy win to make it four wins in a row for a Wildcats’ squad whose record is 17-14 after their recent surge.
With a home series against a solid California team this weekend before two huge road series at conference powers Oregon State and Stanford in the coming weeks, Arizona couldn’t have picked a better time for this winning streak to occur.
Any amount of away wins against the highly ranked Beavers and Cardinal would surely do wonders for the Wildcats’ RPI that can best be described as lackluster.
With the midpoint of the season behind them, if the Cats still have any hope at all of receiving a postseason invite, they will need their recent winning ways to continue.
Here are three things we learned during Arizona’s four wins over Washington and GCU:
Pitching is the Key
A good amount of Arizona’s 14 losses this season have come via their own doing.
Too many times in 2019 the Wildcats either couldn’t field the ball well enough to see out a victory, or their pitching (particularly out of the bullpen) was so bad that they rendered their potent offense totally obsolete.
Despite still being last in the Pac-12 in errors made and fielding percentage, the team’s defense has gotten better in recent weeks. This has led to the emergence of Arizona’s pitching and bullpen now being the biggest x-factors in the Cats’ quest to continue to play sound baseball the rest of the season and potentially make a run at a postseason spot.
Just how important pitching will be the rest of the year was on display during the four-game winning streak against Washington and GCU.
Against Washington, the Wildcats got the best pitching they have gotten all season.
Their starting pitchers, Randy Labaut, Quinn Flanagan and Andrew Nardi all pitched well, and the nine total runs that Arizona allowed the Huskies to score in the three games was the lowest amount of total runs they had allowed an opponent to score in a series in 2019.
The Wildcats’ bullpen was lights out as well, allowing only one run in eight innings of work.
“By far,” Johnson responded when asked on Sunday if it had been the bullpen’s best series of the year.
Unsurprisingly, the team’s overall good performance on the mound coincided with the UA’s first sweep of a conference opponent since last year.
It was a totally different story against Grand Canyon on Tuesday.
In a game they were leading 8-1 heading into the bottom of the fourth, Arizona’s bullpen fell back to their old habit of allowing the opposition huge innings at the plate: the Cats allowed the Lopes back in to the contest when they gave up five runs in the fourth inning, another four in the fifth and three more in the seventh.
An 8-1 lead had been turned into a 13-8 deficit just like that.
Even though the Wildcats ultimately stole the victory away from Grand Canyon, it was an awful performance on the mound from nearly everyone involved.
Arizona pitchers issued 17 walks on the night.
Only Avery Weems, who pitched scoreless eighth and ninth innings to get the W, was really effective in the game.
If the Wildcats are to continue on their upward trend, their pitching will need to consistently perform the way it did in the Washington series and try to avoid games like the one against GCU.
Nick Quintana Has Arrived
It may have taken longer than initially anticipated, but Nick Quintana has finally found the type of form at the plate that saw him obtain multiple Preseason All-American nods this spring.
Arizona’s star third baseman went through something of a slump in the first month of games or so this season: he was hitting an underwhelming .281, had only 14 RBIs and had yet to hit a home run by the time of the Wildcats’ first conference game on March 15.
Less than a month later on April 10, however, his average is up to .316 and he now leads the team with 36 RBIs and 7 HRs.
It’s been a significant turnaround for Quintana, who Johnson called Quintana the team’s “hardest worker” earlier this season.
“At 8 a.m. when I’m getting in my office, he’s the first one I see in here to get work in,” the skipper said.
The powerful junior has also been vital during the Wildcats’ winning streak , driving in six and scoring seven runs during the four games. He’s hit three home runs in that span as well.
His impressive night against GCU summed up his recent play: Quintana went 4-5 with two RBIs, four runs scored, a walk and a mammoth HR deep over the batter’s eye in centerfield.
The improved play from one of their most important players has been monumental for Arizona, whose offense has continued to scintillate but who will still need Quintana to continue to lead by example as they try to maintain their recent resurgence.
If the four games against Washington and GCU are any sort of indication, the Quintana that everyone around the country expected to see this season has arrived and has no plans of going anywhere anytime soon.
Arizona Won’t Quit
Once Arizona’s record dropped to under .500 when they lost their seventh straight game, nobody would have been too surprised if the Wildcats’ season got super ugly.
In fact, certain people were expecting it to happen.
Instead, Arizona has been able to play through adversity to reel off four straight wins and get their campaign somewhat back on track.
While an NCAA Tournament invite is still a long way away, the Wildcats showed tremendous team-character to go on a winning streak of their own after taking seven straight Ls.
Quintana’s two home runs early in Friday’s game one against Washington, the first game after the losing streak, sent a clear message: Arizona isn’t going to just go away this season.
The GCU game was another representation of the high character and heart that the Wildcats possess.
After blowing an early seven-run lead, Arizona found themselves trailing GCU 13-8 in the bottom of the eighth inning. The Cats were facing a loss that would have derailed any positive momentum from the Washington series.
They could just have laid over.
They didn’t, ultimately rallying to to score five runs in the of the eighth before retaking the lead in the top of the ninth.
Matt Dyer, Austin Wells and Quintana came through in the clutch with RBI hits before Tate Soderstrom and Justin Wylie drew walks with the bases loaded to tie the game in the eighth.
Cameron Cannon then struck the game-winning blow to score Quintana in the next frame.
When Weems closed the game out in the bottom of the ninth, the team gleefully came pouring out of the dugout.
Pitching woes aside, the improbable comeback was a feel-good moment for Arizona, whose grit and determination allowed them to keep their winning streak alive and the momentum to keep building after what has been a rough, up-and-down first half of 2019.
They will need that positive momentum to continue to build, as the marathon that is the college baseball season continues.
First pitch of game one between the Wildcats and Cal is scheduled for Friday night at 6 p.m. MST at Hi Corbett.