Fresh off coaching Arizona to a share of its first Pac-12 title in nearly a decade, Jay Johnson was asked to describe what it’s like to navigate the conference that he considers the best in college baseball.
“If you’ve watched the movie ‘300,’ and some of those battle scenes, that’s what I would liken it to,” Johnson said Sunday night, a few hours after the Wildcats rallied to win at Oregon State. “The last five seasons … there’s been five different champions. If something doesn’t scream parity (more) than that I don’t know what does.”
Arizona’s 6-5 victory, combined with Oregon’s extra-inning loss to Stanford, meant the Wildcats (38-14, 21-9) can do no worse than a tie for first place with the Ducks. The UA owns the tiebreaker after taking two of three back in March, meaning its gets the Pac-12’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid, and if Oregon loses at least once next weekend at Cal the Wildcats will win the outright title for the first time since 1992.
“Historically this is significant for our program,” said Johnson. “This is a great, perennially successful program, but Pac-12 championships and Pac-12 success hasn’t always come easy. Especially this year with old players, veteran teams. It’s very meaningful. If you’ve studied Pac-12 baseball history, you know how difficult this accomplishment and achievement is.
“I think it’s more meaningful this year, because frankly for every team it was two years of work for one season.”
Johnson has frequently said he believes his 2020 team, which went 10-5 before the coronavirus pandemic shut sports down, was “an Omaha team.” And that came after the UA ended the 2019 season winning 10 in a row and 13 of 14 but missing out on the NCAA tourney.
“You can’t get any closer to being left out of the tournament than we were,” Johnson said. “A lot of these guys that make up this team had to deal with that disappointment at the end of the 19 season. That was heartbreaking. And then more of a disappointment was (2020).”
Arizona, which wraps up the regular season with a nonconference series against Dixie State, got to celebrate on a field where it had dropped seven in a row before this weekend. That included a 3-game sweep in 2019 when its lack of quality pitching depth was very evident in allowing 32 runs.
Several of the pitchers who got “wrecked” that weekend, as Johnson noted, were key on Sunday as Randy Abshier, Quinn Flanagan, Gil Luna and Vince Vannelle combined to allow one run and strike out 10 over the final 6.1 innings.
“To see those guys be the guys that made this happen, that was very gratifying to see that.”
It wasn’t just Arizona’s improved pitching—aided by the addition of former OSU pitching coach Nate Yeskie in 2020—that stood out over the weekend. So did the unwillingness to give up, even when facing long odds.
Arizona was down 5-1 after seven innings, having done nothing against OSU starter Jake Pfennigs, yet when the eighth inning started it strung together four consecutive singles to begin a game-tying 4-run rally. The first two hitters, freshman Chase Davis and sophomore Tyler Casagrande, are not regular starters, while in the ninth reserves Kyson Donahue and Tanner O’Tremba were integral in the Wildcats scoring the game-winning run.
“We have more than nine starters,” Johnson said, apologizing for repeating something he’s said all season.
Maybe no moment typified how much every Wildcat matters to the team’s success than in the bottom of the seventh when, after it appeared OSU had just scored two more runs to make it 7-1, several of the UA players not in the game helped turn things in their squad’s favor.
“There was like five guys that were right in line with first base that started pointing right away while the play was still going on,” Johnson said of an appeal play at first after OSU’s Wade Meckler missed the bag following his 2-run hit. “Those guys were super engaged all game long, they’ve been engaged all season. That’s the second time this season that happened.”
Arizona tied the game in the following half inning, and the rest is program history.