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Pitching depth standing out for Arizona baseball entering second half of Pac-12 slate

arizona-wildcats-usc-trojans-college-baseball-preview-pitching-bullpen-susac-pac12-2021 Arizona Athletics

With an overall staff ERA of 4.94, and 6.24 in Pac-12 play, Arizona’s pitchers don’t really look that impressive on paper.

But it’s not paper that’s been coming out of the bullpen in nearly a dozen different forms of late, providing the Wildcats with arguably the best pitching depth in the conference.

“I think we’ve had some outstanding pitching performances, both as starters and throughout the pen, that have kept us in almost every game we’ve played,” UA coach Jay Johnson said Thursday. “I think the depth is the first reason for that. I think we have a lot of different styles of pitchers that have different strengths that complement each other well. I think they’ve done a good job of throwing strikes for the most part, and putting pressure on opposing offenses. Guys have come in out of the bullpen and ready to pitch.”

While senior right-handers Preston Price and Vince Vannelle and fourth-year sophomore righty Quinn Flanagan were all known quantities entering the 2021 season, and each has lived up to their lofty expectations, it’s been the contribution of some lesser-known arms that have been key to Arizona (24-11, 9-6) only a game out of first place at the midway point of conference play.

Left-handers Randy Abshier and Gil Luna had only six combined appearances in Arizona’s first 26 games, but since April 6 they’ve teamed up for eight outings. Abshier has picked up two wins and a save in his last five appearances, striking out nine in 8.1 innings, while Luna has struck out 10 and not allowed an earned run in 7.2 innings over three games.

And freshman Chandler Murphy, a righty who began the season in the rotation, picked up wins in relief at ASU on April 1 and at Washington State last Sunday with 8.1 scoreless innings of work.

All told, Arizona’s relievers have a 4.65 ERA and are producing 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings in Pac-12 play.

“One stat that I look at with relief pitchers is their ability to strand inherited runners, and we’ve been very good at that,” Johnson said. “There’s a number of guys that have contributed to that, and it’s been different guys at different phases of the year. I have faith in all of those guys. I think our depth makes us a unique pitching staff.”

With so many different options to choose from out of the pen, having a catcher who can work well with all of them is key. Freshman Daniel Susac is having a stellar season at the plate, hitting .320 with seven home runs and 36 RBI, but his work behind the plate has been just as important.

“It doesn’t really matter to me who’s in the game, they all compete,” Susac said of Arizona’s pitchers. He said he gives each a little talk when they come in: “I usually say trust your stuff. If there’s runners in scoring position I tell them they’re not going to score.”

Johnson said that about 90 percent of the time Susac’s presence back there isn’t even noticed, which he said is the equivalent of having a good umpire who’s calling things fairly.

After blowing out New Mexico State 14-2 on Tuesday, Arizona’s 8-game homestand continues Friday night with the start of a 3-game series against USC. The Trojans (18-13, 6-6) are striking out only 6.75 times per game in Pac-12 play, best in the conference, while the Wildcats’ 12.2 strikeouts per game are second-best in league games.

Johnson said Arizona’s starting rotation will go through some changes for this weekend, most likely to the Sunday slot. Chase Silseth and Garrett Irvin are firmly entrenched on Friday and Saturday, respectively, despite Silseth getting lit up at WSU last week, but TJ Nichols missed his regular Sunday start due to an illness and then lasted only five batters on Tuesday.

Murphy could return to the rotation, while Austin Smith could get another shot after going the first two innings in place of Nichols at Wazzu.

“I think the best part about it is, it doesn’t matter who’s in the game we have that same amount of trust,” Susac said.