OMAHA—Know your enemy. But don’t think you know them too much.
That’s more or less the approach Arizona and coach Jay Johnson are taking as they prepare to face Pac-12 foe Stanford on Monday at 11 a.m. PT in a College World Series game at TD Ameritrade Park.
“We need to do a reset,” Johnson said Sunday of Stanford, against whom the Wildcats lost two of three games in Palo Alto in early May. “They’ve changed a little bit as a team since we’ve played them, played extremely well in the regionals and Super Regionals. With players being day to day, I think a month ago is relevant to a point, but then we need to look at kind of how they’ve been in the postseason.”
Stanford (38-16) lost 10-4 to North Carolina State in Saturday’s CWS opener, seeing ace Brendan Beck get tagged for six runs in 5.2 innings while closer Zach Grech was hit hard in relief.
The Wildcats (45-17) are sure to see junior right-hander Alex Williams, who is coming off a 2-hit shutout of Texas Tech that clinched Stanford’s CWS bid. Williams, who dealt with injury early this season and didn’t return to action until late March, limited Arizona to three hits over six innings in an 8-3 Cardinal win on May 9.
Here’s what to look for when the Wildcats try to avoid elimination:
Moving on, moving forward
Johnson said he was still “hurting on the inside” about Saturday’s 7-6 loss in 12 innings to Vanderbilt, Arizona’s fourth consecutive loss by one run in Omaha.
The Wildcats are 8-7 in one-run games this season, but this was the first in the postseason. Being unable to break through in those close ones in Omaha is disappointing, but Johnson said it’s also a sign of how tough the competition is.
“I think when you get to this point, you’re only playing elite teams, and so the margin between winning and losing is really small,” he said. “We’ve been on the wrong side of a couple of plays that have dictated the outcome and the result. Just keep cracking away at it and put ourselves in position to be on the right side tomorrow.”
Arizona has been really good at shaking off tough losses. It hasn’t dropped consecutive games since losing three in a row in mid-April, and since getting whooped 21-2 at Washington State on April 16 it has averaged 12.8 runs and 15.7 hits (including 6.6 extra-base hits) the game after a loss.
“I think these guys have a lot of confidence in their ability to respond,” Johnson said. “We haven’t ever played complacent when we’ve won and we’ve never been down too long when we’ve lost. I expect that to hold the forum going forward.”
Added outfielder Ryan Holgate: “It’s just really hard to beat this group of guys twice. We definitely hate to lose and we definitely want to stay here as long as we can, because we’re just really enjoying it out here.”
Prior to losing to NC State on Saturday, Stanford had been on a tear. It had won nine of 11 games, including a two-game sweep at Texas Tech in the Super Regionals in which it outscored the Red Raiders 24-3.
The Cardinal, who finished third in the Pac-12 with a 17-10 record, is batting .280 as a team and has 82 home runs, 12 more than Arizona. Sophomore center fielder Brock Jones leads the team with 16 homers and 54 RBI.
Williams, the likely starting pitcher, is 4-2 with a 3.06 ERA. Grech, the closer, has 12 saves and held Arizona scoreless over 3.2 innings in two appearances in Palo Alto. All told, Stanford’s staff has an ERA of 4.60, seventh-best in the Pac-12.
And like the Wildcats, the Cardinal don’t lose consecutive games often. It’s only happened once, dropping the final two of a series at rival Cal in mid-May.
The return of #Gary?
Johnson wouldn’t confirm who is starting for Arizona, but all signs point to junior left-hander Garrett Irvin getting the ball in what he said would be his first elimination game as a college pitcher.
Irvin’s two postseason starts couldn’t have been more different. In the regionals he threw a 3-hit shutout against UC-Santa Barbara, striking out a career-high 10 batters, then last week in the Super Regionals Ole Miss got him for seven runs and seven hits in just 1.1 IP.
“I try to use the same pitches, and what I found is that every team is different, hitting-wise,” Irvin said. “I threw the pitches that worked the week before and they obviously didn’t, because they were either laying off the ones in the dirt, or they were swinging early at the ones that I kind of use as like get-me-over pitches.
“I think I would rather have that outing last week, going into this week, than a complete game 3-hit shutout. Because I think I learned more about different hitters and how I need to change my approach. The positive of going one and a third is I get to see what I did wrong and try to work that into this week.”
Irvin, who is 6-3 with a 4.19 ERA, held Stanford to two runs and five hits over seven on May 8, a 20-2 win that came after the Wildcats lost 5-4 to the Cardinal in 13 innings.
Speaking of extras
Arizona is 1-4 in extra-inning games this season, the only win its epic 17-16 triumph over Washington on May 14 in which it rallied from down three with two out in the bottom of the 10th.
The other four that went long, though, the Wildcats’ hitting in those extra frames has been quite subpar. They were 1 for 10 in the 10th through 12th innings against Vanderbilt, striking out six times and going 0 for 3 with runners in scoring position, and in their four overtime losses they’re hitting .118 (4-34) after the ninth.
“In those games we’re facing the best, best relievers on those teams,” Johnson said. I think that game that extra inning game (against Stanford) will help us having a little better understanding of their relievers. And that’s what’s relevant for tomorrow.”
Possible lineup changes?
Other than left field, Arizona goes with the same eight guys every game, and with Stanford likely throwing a righty it should be left-handed hitting Tyler Casagrande staying in the lineup. But the batting order could shift, as has been the case after some recent losses.
Tony Bullard, who had been on a power tear with six home runs in a 6-game span, was moved to the No. 4 hole for the last two games but is 1 for 12 with seven strikeouts in that spot. Meanwhile Daniel Susac has come out of his slump with back-to-back 2-hit outings since going to the No. 7 spot.
Bullard and Susac had two of the three hits against Stanford’s Williams last month, which Johnson may factor into crafting his lineup. Same goes for the recent power surge from Holgate, who has a 9-game hitting streak and has homered in three of the past five games.
Johnson said Holgate, who is hitting .353 with 11 homers and 56 RBI, is having a “really good season as a pure hitter.” This after the coaching staff worked hard to adjust his swing to one that wasn’t so focused on hitting it out of the park.
“When he got here it was a massive leg kick, swing for the moon and try to put a hole in the moon,” Johnson said. “And at times you can he do that.”
Holgate’s 2-run homer put Arizona up 5-3 in the sixth on Saturday, knocking Vanderbilt ace Kumar Rocker out of the game.
“You’re not always going to get that pitch just right down the middle that you can just crush over the fence,” he said. “It’s just more like being more of a professional hitter and just doing what you can do with what they give you.”