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Previewing Arizona baseball’s must-sweep series at Washington State

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Can the Wildcats sneak into the NCAA Tournament?

arizona-wilcats-baseball-wsu-cougars-final-series-ncaa-tournament-bubble-2019 @ArizonaBaseball on Twitter

Less than a month ago, nobody would have believed that Arizona baseball had any chance of making the NCAA Tournament.

Despite featuring one of the most prolific offenses in the country, heading into a home series with Oregon on May 3 the Wildcats were just 19-23 overall and serious pitching and defensive problems had contributed to them losing three in a row and eight of their previous 10.

With a mediocre conference record of 6-12, the UA found itself in eighth place in the eleven-team Pac-12 standings with only four league series to go.

To sum things up, the Wildcats looked like they were dead in the water.

Just a few weeks later, however, thanks to some-much improved starting pitching, a seven-game win streak and victories in 10 of their last 11 games, Arizona (29-24, 12-14) is very much alive in its pursuit of a postseason bid.

With sweeps over Oregon, USC, Sam Houston State and Penn State in the last month, the Wildcats’ RPI has risen all the way up to 47th in the country – a number that’s up 20 spots from just a week ago and that has put the UA squarely on the NCAA bubble.

After such a remarkable turnaround, Arizona’s still-slim NCAA hopes are on the line as it heads into the last series of its season, a three-game set at Washington State that begins Thursday in Pullman.

A sweep of the last-place Cougars wouldn’t make a postseason invitation a sure thing, but it would definitely make things interesting come next Monday when the tournament field is announced.

Three wins in the Palouse would push the Wildcats’ conference record to above .500, at 15-14, while a single loss would essentially end any chances of Arizona hearing its name called on Selection Monday.

In 2018, when the UA had a better resume but didn’t make it to the postseason for the first time under head coach Jay Johnson, it was widely believed to be because of a sub-.500 record in conference play.

That’s why it’s absolutely critical that this year’s team sweeps Wazzu to get their Pac-12 record to over .500 for the year.

“That stuff has nothing to do with how we actually play unless we let it,” Johnson said Tuesday when asked how their NCAA Tournament odds would impact his team. “Our job is to not to let it do that and go back and focus on what we can control.”

The biggest thing that the Wildcats have to control in the season-defining series against the Cougars is their pitching, which has infamously struggled this year but that’s also been much better down the stretch.

Randy Labaut, Quinn Flanagan and Andrew Nardi (the projected starters against WSU) combined to allow just one run in 19.1 innings in the sweep at Penn State last weekend and if Arizona has any hope of getting into the NCAA tournament, it will need those guys to deliver more of the same.

Going deep into their respective games will be essential for the UA’s starting pitchers, as the UA’s bullpen (other than Vince Vannelle) has continued to struggle.

On Tuesday, Johnson acknowledged that regardless of what happens in Washington, the Wildcats deserve credit for making it this close after what was a nightmarish first two-thirds of their season.

“It’s cool to be in the conversation, especially with where we were a month ago,” the skipper said. “Our players deserve a lot of credit for really improving on the field and putting themselves into a position to be talked about this week.”

Here’s Jay Johnson previewing Arizona baseball’s last regular season series of 2019. The Wildcats will travel to Pullman for a three-game set at Washington State starting Thursday, needing a sweep to stay alive in pursuit of an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Tuesday, May 21, 2019