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Arizona baseball downs USC for first Pac-12 sweep of season, moves into tie for first

Chandler Murphy
Arizona Athletics

Win or lose, after each game Arizona huddles up the third base line at Hi Corbett Field to discuss what just happened.

On Sunday, that scrum included an extra item: a large, red push broom.

Arizona beat USC 8-4 to complete its first Pac-12 series sweep since the final weekend of the 2019 season. The Wildcats (27-11, 12-6) have won five consecutive league series, but in three previous attempts at a sweep they had come up short on Sunday, including home losses of 18-13 to Oregon and 9-1 to Cal.

“Maybe to them, it might mean something; to me it’s not something we’ve talked about,” UA coach Jay Johnson said of sweeping, noting that Arizona swept a 4-game series against Southeastern Louisiana in February and won all four games at the Frisco Classic during a 10-game win streak earlier this season. “It always comes back to the play on that day. With this age group, things can be so day-to-day or week-to-week, we’re just really trying to preach a message of consistency. We just haven’t played as good, maybe, on a couple Sundays as we have on Friday or Saturday.”

The win, combined with Oregon’s loss to UCLA, moves Arizona into a four-way tie for first in the Pac-12 in terms of win percentage (.667). The Wildcats have a two-game lead on the Ducks and Beavers (10-5) in the win column, while Stanford is only 8-4 after having to postpone this weekend’s series against Washington because of COVID-19 issues within its program.

After having starters Chase Silseth and Garrett Irvin go a combined 14.2 innings in the first two games, Sunday’s affair was a planned bullpen day. Austin Smith got his second consecutive Sunday start, going 3.1 hitless innings while allowing the run, and because Arizona had planned ahead of time to use at least three pitchers the right-hander earned the win by virtue of an obscure college baseball rule.

If not, Chandler Murphy would have improved to 6-0 after going the next 3.1 innings, yielding two runs on three hits while striking out six. He got the decision in Saturday’s 10-6 victory over USC by facing just one batter and could have been the first UA pitcher to get wins in consecutive games since Tyger Talley in 2013.

Murphy began the season as one of Arizona’s starters, but his last four wins have come out of the bullpen. Johnson said he thinks being a reliever better suits the freshman righty’s personality.

“When he pitches with an edge he’s really good,” Johnson said. “We want a pitching staff full of out collectors, and it’s been very advantageous for us to use Chandler as an out collector at a key point in the game. We’ve won both the last two Sundays largely because of how he’s pitched, so I think he’s handled it great. He’s a winner, so to have him stack wins up doesn’t surprise me.”

Arizona used four pitchers Sunday, with lefty Riley Cooper struggling when he relieved Murphy in the seventh, but senior Vince Vannelle righted the ship by retiring the final seven batters including USC’s Jamal O’Quinn on one pitch to end the seventh.

Johnson called that the best outing of the year for Vannelle, who is 3-2 with six saves and a team-best 2.05 ERA.

“Today I was just thinking about this pitch right now,” said Vannelle, who said in some of his recent outings his mental outlook had been off.

Offensively, it was a pretty typical day for Arizona, which had 13 hits. Three were by Daniel Susac, who had two RBI and is hitting .500 (14 for 28) with four home runs and 14 RBI during the Wildcats’ 6-game win streak, while Branden Boissiere, Ryan Holgate and Donta’ Williams each had two hits and No. 9 hitter Nik McClaughry drove in two to give him nine RBI in the last five games.

And not to be outdone, Jacob Berry blasted his team-high 11th home run, the most by a UA freshman since UA career leader Shelley Duncan hit 20 as a freshman in 1999. Susac, whose six Pac-12 homers are two shy of Duncan’s school freshman record, and Berry appear to be each other’s top competition for conference Freshman of the Year honors.

“I think they’re special talents, no question about that,” Johnson said. “I think what’s unique about them is to take that talent and it’s a usable skill right now, and that says more about their maturity than their ability.”

Arizona continues its 8-game homestand Friday against last-place Utah (10-23, 5-13).