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Arizona baseball’s bullpen remains key to success as regular season winds down

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Dawson Netz
Arizona Athletics

Arizona had just finished its second Pac-12 series of the season, taking two of three from Oregon at Hi Corbett Field, yet the most recent game showed just how much the Wildcats still needed to improve in a certain area in order to really compete for a conference title.

An 18-13 home loss to the Ducks on March 28 saw the UA crank out 17 hits but give up 21, with 16 of those coming from six relievers with each of them allowing at least a run.

That game served as a “tipping point” for Arizona’s bullpen, coach Jay Johnson said this week.

“We really needed to get some guys on track with what their template was for executing pitches and getting outs,” he said.

UA relievers to that point had posted a 5.55 ERA in 23 games, allowing opposing batters to hit .265 while giving up more than 5.5 walks per nine innings. In the 22 games since, Arizona’s bullpen has a 3.07 ERA, is yielding just over 3.5 walks per nine and opponents are hitting only .229 against it.

Not surprisingly, Arizona (32-13, 16-8 Pac-12) has won 16 of those 22 games, with the pen picking up half those wins, and it is 13-5 in conference play. The Wildcats are tied with Oregon and Stanford for first in the Pac-12 heading into their final conference home series against Washington (17-24, 3-15), which begins Friday night at Hi Corbett.

So, what changed? Time, says Johnson.

“I think the best teacher in baseball is playing time and experience,” he said. “After missing last season there was a lot of competitive opportunities for development lost that some of these guys had to get some of them under their belt early in the season. They definitely have improved. I think we learned our team a little bit better, and allowed myself and (pitching coach Nate) Yeskie to put them in the best positions to be successful.”

The most impressive part of Arizona’s bullpen improvement may be that it’s come while one of its best arms has been unavailable. Senior right-hander Preston Price, who has a 2.55 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 17.2 innings, hasn’t pitched in a game since April 9 due to arm soreness.

Johnson said “we’re on the cusp” of having Price return to action, though he won’t put him into a game unless he believes he’s 100 percent.

“We’re going to always do what’s in the best interest of the player,” he said.

Price’s absence has inadvertently allowed others to step into bigger roles alongside fellow senior righty Vince Vannelle, who leads the team with seven saves. Freshmen Riley Cooper and Dawson Netz have combined to strike out 23 in 27 innings with a 3.67 ERA since the start of April, while veteran lefties Randy Abshier and Gil Luna have had 14 of their 20 combined appearances come in the past 19 games.

“I’ve been pleased with the other pieces of the bullpen pitching well,” Johnson said. “That hasn’t hurt us maybe as much as you would have thought given Preston’s contribution to this point in the season.”