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Pac-12 champ Arizona wraps up regular season vs. Dixie State with plenty to play for

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The Arizona Wildcats are Pac-12 champions and will represent the conference as its automatic qualifier when the NCAA Tournament begins next week. Nothing can change that, no matter what happens this weekend.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left for the UA to play for during the regular season, which ends with a 3-game series against nonconference Dixie State that begins Thursday night at Hi Corbett.

“We want to play both rounds of the postseason at Hi Corbett, and to give ourselves the best chance to do that is to win as many games as you can,” coach Jay Johnson said. “When you look at how the (NCAA Tournament selection) committee usually looks at it, they take value in every game.”

On paper, Arizona (38-14) is far superior to Dixie State (23-30) in every way. The Trailblazers, in their first season of Division I play, are hitting .263 (compared to .327 for the Wildcats) and their team ERA is a hefty 7.85. None of their pitchers have an ERA better than 4.53, which is higher than Arizona’s team ERA of 4.45.

But Dixie will come to Tucson riding a season-best 8-game win streak, helping it finish fourth in the Western Athletic Conference. Arizona can’t afford to drop even one game in the series, not if it wants to earn a top-8 national seed and the right to host both regionals and Super Regionals, so Johnson doesn’t plan on taking it easy this weekend.

The only notable change he confirmed is that No. 1 and 2 starting pitchers Chase Silseth and Garrett Irvin will remain in their Friday and Saturday slots, meaning Thursday’s series opener will be more of a bullpen game like Tuesday midweek contests have been and how Arizona operated in its conference-clinching 6-5 win at Oregon State on Sunday when it used six arms.

“I think that’s in the best interests of those two because they’ve emptied the tank,” Johnson said of Silseth and Irvin, who have combined to throw 152.2 innings this season.

“It’s just really another opportunity to play and just compete out there,” said reliever Vince Vannelle, one of two seniors who will be honored before Saturday’s regular-season finale.

Vannelle and fellow right-hander reliever Preston Price—whom Johnson said is expected to pitch this weekend after being out since mid-April with arm soreness—won’t be the only players Arizona honors this weekend. Johnson said all of the UA’s recent graduates will be recognized, while Dixie State’s seniors will also get a shout out including Jake Engel, a graduate of nearby Ironwood Ridge High School.

“Coming back, I know Preston and I have really been cherishing these moments,” Vannelle said. “This is kind of one of the most special times that I’ve been a part of. If you think about it, it’s been a 2-year journey. I 100 percent made the right decision to come back. All I really wanted to do was come back and win, and just keep winning.”

College baseball’s regular season actually ends Sunday, with the completion of various conference tournaments across the country. The NCAA will announce the 16 regional hosts on Sunday night, with the 64-team field unveiled at 12 p.m. PT Monday.

Berry, Susac make cut for national awards

The Pac-12 will announce its awards early next week, and it stands to reason that several Arizona players (and Johnson) are going to be recognized. Maybe the biggest drama will come down to which of the UA’s freshman phenoms, Jacob Berry or Daniel Susac, will win Freshman of the Year and whether one or the other will end up as Pac-12 Player of the Year.

In the meantime, both have made the short list for prestigious national awards.

Berry is one of 42 semifinalists for the Dick Howser Trophy, the first UA player to be a semifinalist since Bobby Dalbec in 2015. Berry leads the Pac-12 with 62 RBI while posting team highs in home runs (14), batting average (.381) and slugging percentage (.716).

Susac, who is hitting .352 with 12 homers, 58 RBI and a team-high 20 doubles, is one of 17 finalists for the Buster Posey National Collegiate Catcher of the Year Award.