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Pitching takes center stage as Arizona baseball opens Pac-12 play at UCLA

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UA senior Preston Price
Courtesy Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats began the 2021 season with a shutout of Ball State, but in the 15 games since then they have yielded five or more runs 10 times. That’s not such a big deal when your offense averages 9.2 runs and has failed to plate at least seven runs in only four contests.

But that was the preseason. And though Arizona (12-4) played some quality opponents over the first four weekends, it’s a whole different game now that Pac-12 play has arrived.

To further drive that point home, the UA opens Pac-12 play against UCLA, the unanimous pick of conference’s coaches to win the league. The Wildcats and Bruins (10-5) play three games at Jackie Robinson Stadium in Los Angeles beginning with Friday’s 6 p.m. PT tilt before Arizona finishes out the road trip with a Monday afternoon game at Loyola Marymount.

Arizona’s pitching staff has a 4.38 ERA, with the starters at 4.58. The quartet of Chase Silseth, Chandler Murphy, Garrett Irvin and TJ Nichols are 8-1 with 75 strikeouts against 29 walks in 78.2 innings pitched.

“I think it’s been good in spots,” UA coach Jay Johnson said of his pitching staff. “The starters have a lot of wins under their belt. That’s really the one that matters to me. I think in spots the bullpen has been really good. I think there’s some things we can do better, I think we can attack the strike zone a little bit better, I think we can finish guys off when we get to two strikes a little bit better.”

UCLA has a 3.37 team ERA, with none of its five starters allowing more than three earned runs in an outing.

Arizona has gone with the same order of starters—Silseth, Murphy, Irvin and Nichols—each weekend, but Johnson said that could change this time around. No starters had been announced as of Thursday.

The only UA starter tagged with a loss is Irvin, a junior left-hander who went 4-0 in his four starts in 2019 before the season was halted just ahead of Pac-12 play. This year has been a lot different for him due to arm discomfort that popped up around Thanksgiving and forced him to get shut down for a few weeks.

Johnson said he and pitching coach Nate Yeskie had to “reboot” Irvin, which involved slowly increasing his pitch count week by week. He only threw 30 pitches in his 2021 debut, which lasted just 1.2 innings, tossed 55 a week later and got up to 82 in Saturday’s 5-2 loss to Air Force.

“He’s a winner,” Johnson said of Irgin. “He’s won everywhere he’s been. We had a little bit of a hiccup with his arm. I thought he responded really well to the adversity in the first inning the other night. He retired 16 out of 17 hitters at one point.”

Adding to the importance of pitching is that Arizona won’t have its complete stable of available arms for the UCLA series. The Pac-12 limits travel rosters in baseball to 27 players, of which between 11 and 14 will be pitchers for the Wildcats.

The UA has used 16 pitchers so far this season, though of the 12 relievers three have only made one appearance while eight have thrown in five or more games. Topping that list is senior Preston Price, who has a stellar 1.46 ERA in eight games spanning 12.1 innings, nearly all of which have involved him inheriting baserunners.

“I think the situations that we’ve put him into have all been what I would call a tipping point in the game as far as winning and losing,” Johnson said.

The most recent of those was Sunday’s 14-5 victory over Air Force, when he relieved Nichols with one out in the fifth and runners on first and second and struck out the next two Falcons on seven pitches. Price would go on to throw a career-high 3.1 innings.

While the three against UCLA have the most importance, the getaway visit to Loyola Marymount won’t be an easy one. The Lions (7-7) have played nothing but Pac-12 teams so far, sweeping Utah and taking two of three at Washington.