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Arizona baseball heads to Stanford with 1st place in Pac-12 on the line

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Getting Jay Johnson to consider a series, or even a single game, as more important than any other, is like trying to convince a bank manager to give you a loan despite bad credit and no collateral. He appreciates the effort, but isn’t going to bite.

Yours truly took his shot ahead of this weekend’s battle for first place between Arizona and Stanford in Palo Alto, and I got the answer I expected.

“I think it’s the most important opportunity because it’s the next opportunity,” Johnson said. “I know that’s boring, and I’m okay with that.”

Arizona (31-11, 15-6 Pac-12) has a five-game lead on Stanford (24-9, 10-5) in the win column heading into Friday night’s opener, the result of sweeping its last two conference series during a 10-game win streak. The Wildcats have won 10 in a row twice this season, which last happened for them in 1976 en route to the program’s first of four College World Series titles.

Yet while a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time is all but assured, Johnson isn’t allowing himself or his players to get ahead of themselves even with so much attention focused on the program.

“I know our players are excited,” he said. “It’s a heck of a lot better than people saying you stink.”

The UA leads the nation in several offensive categories, but it’s how it fares on the mound that will dictate whether it can win a seventh consecutive Pac-12 series. Stanford is fourth in conference games with a 4.46 ERA, compared to 5.34 for Arizona, and the Cardinal lead the conference in home runs.

Stanford has 27 homers in 15 Pac-12 games. Arizona has allowed 13 homers in 21 conference games, only seven in the past 15.

Sticking with the simple answers, Johnson said “executing pitches, throwing strikes” are the keys to keeping the Cardinal in the yard.

“Throwing low strikes,” he said. “Command both sides of the plate, changing speeds, which our pitching staff does well.”

Avoiding free passes also helps. Arizona is allowing just over 4.1 walks per game in Pac-12 play, and Saturday starter Garrett Irvin has been one of the worst offenders in that area with 25 free passes issued in 50.2 innings of work.

“I’ve walked way too many guys,” Irvin said. “I’m not making good pitches later on in the count. It’s affecting how deep I go in games.”

The junior left-hander is coming off subpar against Utah on Saturday, one in which he struck out six and only walked two but lasted only 3.1 innings after 81 pitches. He threw a season-high 114 pitches April 17 at Washington State, a far cry from the beginning of the season when he was on a strict pitch count due to offseason arm issues.

“My arm was, I guess, not in the best shape in the fall just because of the shortened season last year,” said Irvin, who is 3-1 this season after winning all four starts in the shortened 2020 campaign. “I did not put together a well-planned out one. My arm is slowing coming along, and right now I feel amazing.”

Arizona will need everyone to be at their best while playing somewhere it hasn’t claimed a series since 2015. The Wildcats are only 6-5 in true road games this season, while Stanford is 15-3 at Sunken Diamond.

Asked if Arizona needs to take any special approach to win on the road, Johnson gave one final self-described boring answer.

“I think our team needs to be our team,” Johnson said.