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Arizona baseball sitting well in RPI as season reaches midway point

Wildcats are No. 3 in country in key metric

arizona-wildcats-college-baseball-cal-golden-bears-preview-rpi-regionals-ncaa-murphy-johnson-2021 Courtesy Arizona Athletics

Sometimes it’s good to be hated, as long as it’s for the right reasons.

“I want teams to hate to play us, and to be very uncomfortable playing us,” Arizona Wildcats baseball coach Jay Johnson said Thursday. “That doesn’t have anything to do with anything other than the pressure that we apply while we’re playing.”

So far, that approach seems to be working. As Arizona (19-8, 5-4 Pac-12) reaches the halfway point of the regular season with Friday’s game against Cal, the first of a 3-game set at Hi Corbett Field, it is not only on pace to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2017 but in contention to host a regional for the first time since 2012 when the Wildcats went on to win the College World Series.

Technically, every team that wants to host a regional is still in the running to do so, since the NCAA has altered the selection process for 2021 due to COVID-19 protocols. Rather than have the top 16 seeds serve as hosts, as is normally the case, the regional sites will be selected 15 days before the 64-team field is announced on May 31.

Johnson isn’t concerning himself with any of that as of now, as he believes merit will stay play a big part in the selection process. He said Arizona will have its bid submitted by Monday—the deadline to do so—and then just hope the combination of Hi Corbett’s pro-level facilities and his team’s performance take care of the rest.

“The only thing I looked at is merit matters, that’s the line that I read and where my focus will stay,” he said. “Obviously we’d love to have postseason baseball in Tucson, there’s a lot of baseball left to be played. In competitive athletics, really the only thing that matters or should matter is what happens on the field. I think it’s great that it’s going to be based on what happens on the field.”

Arizona is ranked outside the top 16 in most college baseball polls but it sits third in the RPI after beginning the week at No. 5. The Wildcats’ predicted RPI, per, is ninth.

Cal (16-11, 4-2) is No. 134 in RPI, better than only Utah (170th) and Washington (183rd) in the Pac-12, but Johnson believes that number is misleading. After Tuesday’s 14-2 home win over ASU he noted that prior to playing Loyola Marymount on March 22 that team’s head coach told him he believed Cal was possibly the best team in the Pac-12.

LMU, which lost three of four to Cal, opened its season with 14 straight games against Pac-12 teams.

Arizona has gotten to this point with a lineup that hasn’t gone through many changes. Seven position players have started at least 24 of 27 games, and since Nik McClaughry took over at third base for an injured Tony Bullard during the LMU win on March 22 the Wildcats have used the same starting nine for seven consecutive games.

“Those first seven guys, they’re the best offense in college baseball right now, and so we’re gonna continue to play those guys,” Johnson said. “That being said, we have more than nine good players. It’s something that I’m proud of is we haven’t had any drop off, regardless of who’s been in those (last two) spots, and that’s a credit to the players working and being ready.”

The same can be said of pitcher Chandler Murphy, who after beginning the season in the starting rotation has become the staff’s de facto “on call” arm out of the bullpen. Three of his last four appearances have been in relief, including on April 1 when he didn’t allow the hit over the final five innings of a 10-5 win at ASU.

That earned him the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week award, which normally goes to a starter.

Johnson said a friend of his, whom he described as “a very good pitching person in professional baseball” and who has watched Arizona play the past two years, believes Murphy could end up being the UA’s best arm.

“I think I saw a big shift in how he approached things, how he works within the last week,” Johnson said. “The outing against Arizona State was not a surprise to me.”

Murphy came on for No. 1 starter Chase Silseth, who went a season-low four innings. If he or fellow starters Garrett Irvin or TJ Nichols struggle against Cal it won’t be a surprise to see Murphy relieve them.

“I always try to stay warm,” Murphy said.