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Arizona alone in first in Pac-12 after blowing out Utah for 9th straight win

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Arizona’s Friday and Saturday starters have been entrenched nearly all season, with Chase Silseth and Garrett Irvin pitching the first two games of every series since Pac-12 play began. The third spot has been far less consistent, but that might be close to changing.

Austin Smith picked up his second consecutive Sunday win in his third straight series finale start, striking out seven to set the tone in a 15-3 victory over Utah at Hi Corbett Field.

It was the ninth straight win for Arizona (30-11, 15-6 Pac-12) and marked its second consecutive conference sweep along with a sixth straight league series win. This is the earliest the UA has made it to 30 wins since the 2007 team started 30-6 (but finished 12-11).

Such a late collapse would be shocking with how the Wildcats seem to be improving by the game.

“I think we’re playing very good complimentary baseball,” coach Jay Johnson said. “The offense is well documented. And (we’re) getting the right pieces in order on the mound.”

Smith, a junior right-hander who transferred from Southwestern University in Texas, allowed two runs and four hits in 3.2 innings. His 65 pitches were the same number he threw in last Sunday’s win over USC when he went the first 3.1.

Johnson isn’t ready to anoint him the permanent Sunday starter, though, but not because of anything Smith hasn’t done.

“Austin has one of the best arms on our team, and if we need to use him to win on Friday or Saturday we’ll do that,” he said. “I’m really pleased with his development. I think we’ve brought him along appropriately from where he was coming from. He was a player I wish we had as a freshman. I think he’s in position to make an impact.”

A converted first baseman and shortstop, Smith didn’t switch to pitching full time since 2019. At Southwestern, where he struck out 179 batters in 134.2 innings over 25 appearances from 2018-20, a mid-90s fastball was all he needed, but now he’s added a curveball has contributed Johnson to declare him “a future Major Leaguer” that he compares to Arizona Diamondbacks reliever (and former Wildcat) Kevin Ginkel.

“It changes everything,” Smith said of his curve. “Hitters can sit fastball all day, but it’s when you’re able to mix in a good secondary pitch that you can get them on their toes a little bit and it helps my fastball play up.”

Smith left the game with a 3-1 lead but Utah (10-26, 5-16) cut the deficit to 3-2 after Quinn Flanagan took over on the mound. The Utes would have tied it had Arizona not thrown out a runner at home earlier in the inning on a relay from left fielder Mac Bingham to third baseman Tony Bullard and on to catcher Daniel Susac.

Susac also prevented the Utes from knotting it up by chasing down a ball that got away after a swinging third strike and gunned out speedy Utah centerfielder Jaylon McLaughlin at first as a runner was heading home.

“I knew it was leadoff (guy), who I think is the best player on the team, so that’s another reason I had to get there a lot quicker,” Susac said.

Arizona responded in the bottom of the fourth with four runs, all with two out. Branden Boissiere had a 2-run single and Jacob Berry followed with a two-run triple, snapping a string of 15 consecutive singles for the Wildcats since Berry had an RBI triple in the seventh inning of Friday’s 11-1 win.

Susac made it 8-2 in the fifth with a solo home run to right that somehow cut through a strong wind. It was his 11th homer, tying Berry for most on the team and the most by a UA freshman since Shelley Duncan hit a freshman school-record 20 in 1999.

Susac was 3 for 4, with all three hits going to the opposite field.

“It’s always been my approach since I was little, that if the ball is away then take it away, don’t too much with it,” Susac said.

Arizona began the weekend in a four-way tie for first in the Pac-12 with Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford in terms of win percentage but are now alone at the top after Oregon and OSU each lost two of three on the road and Stanford fell at USC on Sunday.

The Wildcats head to Palo Alto to take on Stanford next weekend, but first host Grand Canyon on Tuesday night at Hi Corbett. It will be a revenge game after the UA lost 5-4 at GCU on April 13.