It was 70 degrees at first pitch on Tuesday night when Arizona finished up a 4-game homestand at Hi Corbett Field. Eighteen hours later, when the Wildcats touched down in Salt Lake City, it was snowing.
While the forecast is better for Thursday, temperatures for the UA’s 3-game series at Utah aren’t expected to get out of the 50s. All three contests will also be at 10 a.m. PT, 11 a.m. local time, due to the Utes sharing a stadium with the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees.
The combination of early starts and a shared complex means Arizona can’t have a full practice at Smith’s Ballpark, relying on indoor batting cages and an off-site practice field. It makes for less-than-preferred conditions, but outfielder Tanner O’Tremba doesn’t think it will matter.
“I think a lot of times when you play early, you don’t have the choice to get a ton of swings in, or do a bunch of stuff, or wait around all day,” he said. “It’s nice to just get going, and I think a lot of times you see the best thing guys when when you just get thrown right into it.”
Arizona (23-10, 10-5) enters the Utah series tied with Oregon State for first in the Pac-12, but after dropping three in a row (before winning the last two) the Wildcats have seen their RPI dip to No. 32 as of Wednesday. That’s led to them falling out of D1Baseball’s projected top 8 seeds for the NCAA Tournament, while Baseball America has dropped the UA even further, currently listed as the No. 2 seed in the Stillwater Regional hosted by No. 4 Oklahoma State.
Since starting 16-4, Arizona is 7-6.
“It’s a long, long season and anything can happen,” said O’Tremba, who is hitting .362 with three home runs and 29 RBI. “There’s a reason why we’re hot at the beginning. There’s a reason why you struggle a little bit in the middle and then you get hot at the end. You can’t can’t be hot the whole year.”
Utah (18-13-1, 5-7) has already topped last season’s win total but will be playing without first-year head coach Gary Henderson, who was suspended without pay on Wednesday for a “personnel matter.” The Utes are in the upper half of the league in batting average in conference games, with freshman infielder Landon Frei hitting .429 in Pac-12 games.
Despite the series moved up a day (to accommodate Easter Sunday) Arizona will stick with the same weekend rotation as it did against Washington State: right-hander TJ Nichols (4-2, 3.57), lefty Garrett Irvin (3-1, 2.47) and righty Chandler Murphy (1-0, 5.11). The Wildcats will also need starters for games Monday and Tuesday at Creighton, which figure to be righties Anthony Susac (1-1, 8.34) and Dawson Netz (2-1, 4.45), which limits the number of long relievers they’ll have available this weekend.
Righty Quinn Flanagan (3-1, 1.69) has been dependable in that role all season, with nine of his 13 outings going for 2-plus innings, while freshman lefty Eric Orloff (1-1, 2.89) is turning into another long option. He allowed one hit with three strikeouts over three innings in Tuesday’s 4-2 win over New Mexico State.
UA coach Chip Hale said Orloff, like the other true freshmen pitchers he inherited, were a big question mark coming in.
“We really didn’t know what we’re gonna get out of them this year, it’s almost a developmental year,” Hale said. “He just pitched his way into the rotation in a game.”
Orloff, from Northbrook, Ill., committed to the UA four days after his first conversations with the program—he was recruited by former pitching coach Nate Yeskie—despite having never been west of St. Louis. At the time Orloff was primarily a fastball thrower, saying all but eight of the 107 pitches he threw in his final high school game were fastballs, yet against NMSU his change-up was the dominant option.
Same went for a game at New Mexico in late March when Orloff threw 15 consecutive change-ups.
“That’s been the biggest part of my game that has developed since I came here, for sure, is my change-up,” Orloff said.
After Utah, Arizona will travel to Omaha for a two-game nonconference series against Creighton (18-8). Both games are on national television and will be at Charles Schwab Field, formerly known as TD Ameritrade Park, where the College World Series is played.
The Wildcats went 0-2 on that field in June, falling in extra innings in Vanderbilt and then getting eliminated by Stanford.