A master of coachspeak, Jay Johnson loves to say that the upcoming game or series is the most important one. He didn’t have to say that this week for it to be true.
Arizona wraps up its Pac-12 slate this weekend with three games at Oregon State, a series that will have a huge say in whether the Wildcats earn at least a share of their first conference title since 2012. A good showing in Corvallis can also help the UA lock up a top-8 seed for the NCAA Tournament, which would mean being able to host both regional and Super Regional games on the road to the College World Series.
“I expect a highly competitive series,” Johnson said. “It’s one of those weekends where it’s going to be a lot of fun. We’ve had 10 weekends in a row like that.”
Arizona (36-13, 19-8) is percentage points behind Oregon (34-11, 17-7) for first place in the Pac-12, and because not every team will play the same number of conference games this season win percentage will be the deciding factor in the title race. The Wildcats will probably need to win at least one game this weekend to have a shot at a share of first, while taking two or more could earn them their first outright conference title since 1992.
The trip will serve as a homecoming for UA pitching coach Nate Yeskie, who coached OSU’s pitchers from 2009-19 and was part of the Beavers’ 2018 national championship team. Several of OSU’s current pitchers learned from Yeskie, including closer Jake Mulholland and Friday night starter Kevin Abel.
Johnson said he expects Yeskie to have some emotions going back to where he coached for 11 seasons—“We’re real people; there’s feelings and those kinds of things”—but doesn’t expect it to impact his ability to guide Arizona’s staff.
And what a job he’s done.
In the last full season the UA played, in 2019, it had a 6.23 ERA while striking out 7.5 batters per nine innings and issuing 5.3 walks per nine. This year Arizona’s ERA is at 4.47, its strikeouts per nine are almost 9.4 and the walks per nine is just over 4.0.
Arizona pitchers have recorded 10 or more strikeouts in 24 games this season, doing so in 35 of the 64 games since Yeskie was hired. In 2019 that happened in 14 of 56 games.
“In 2019 we had the best offense in college baseball, but frankly we just weren’t good enough on the mound,” Johnson said. “It felt like we needed a little bit of a reboot, and there was nobody better in my opinion to help do that than Nate. I’ve said this many times, I just wanted the competitive culture of our pitching staff to be elite. We both want to accomplish the same things.”
Oregon State (32-18, 14-10) remains the gold standard of pitching in the Pac-12, leading the league with a 3.32 ERA and striking out a conference-best 10.05 batters per nine innings. The Beavers are in the bottom half offensively, though, and they strike out more than any other team in the Pac-12.
“It probably comes down to executing pitches, getting ahead,” Johnson said. “I think the thing that our team has done a good job of is the things that won week one for us are very similar to the things that won last night’s game for us, or last weekend’s games. They’re a good staff, there’s no question about that. They have really good stuff. We need to control our at-bats. They’re going to get you out sometimes. We need to stay disciplined in the things that make us successful.”
This weekend could finally see the return of senior right-hander Preston Price, who has not pitched since April 9 because of arm soreness. Johnson said Price through a bullpen session on Tuesday, prior to Arizona’s 14-3 win over New Mexico State, and that he’s “really close” to returning.
Price was having a breakout year before getting sidelined, posting a 2.55 ERA with three saves and striking out 32 in 17.2 innings.
Arizona, which has won seven of nine Pac-12 series this season, has lost seven straight at OSU and last took a series in Corvallis in 2012.