Arizona is in the midst of a 6-game stretch against nonconference opponents, its last batch of such contests before the stretch run of nine consecutive Pac-12 matchups to end the regular season. The first of those games was Tuesday, a 15-5 win at New Mexico State, with the next five at Hi Corbett Field beginning with a 4-game set against Nevada.
Don’t expect the Wildcats to be treating these games any differently than Pac-12 tilts.
“I think now they’re just all equally important,” UA coach Chip Hale said Wednesday. “We need to win the most we can. We really focused on that (Tuesday), of trying to just play that game and make sure we played with the same intensity we did against Arizona State. We’ll have to keep that going. These guys are really good about that, they’re really good about understanding that these games, especially now, are really important. I hope I don’t have to say a whole lot.”
Arizona (29-13) entered the week at No. 37 in the RPI, which translates into traveling for the NCAA Tournament. D1Baseball projects the Wildcats going to Coral Gables, Fla., for a regional hosted by No. 3 national seed Miami, while Baseball America is projecting the UA in the Fort Worth Regional hosted by No. 9 national seed TCU.
There’s still time for Arizona to climb enough to be able to host, particularly over the final two weekends of the regular season when it hosts Oregon State (No. 3 in RPI) and visits Oregon (No. 17), as well as in the Pac-12 Tournament, but for the time being the focus is on getting things right for the stretch run
And a lot of that will revolve around the pitching staff.
Hale said right-hander Chandler Murphy will start Thursday’s opener, with righty TJ Nichols and lefty Garrett Irvin to follow. Sunday’s starter is still to be decided.
Murphy and Nichols combined to throw only 5.2 innings in their starts against ASU, allowing seven runs and 13 hits. They also issued six walks and threw four wild pitches, all of which contributed to runs scoring.
Nichols threw four wild pitches in one inning of Friday’s 7-6 victory, with the Sun Devils scoring on two of those. Nichols has thrown a team-high 10 wild pitches, but he’s far from the only scofflaw.
Arizona has thrown 58 wild pitches, which is already tied for fifth-most in school history, and opponents have scored 33 runs either directly or indirectly off them. A 9-8 loss at Cal in the Wildcats’ Pac-12 opener in March saw three runs score off wild pitches in a disastrous ninth inning.
“I think what we need to do better is maybe recovering from them,” catcher Daniel Susac said. “I think sometimes they spiral a little bit. I think if we can limit them, or limit the damage after them, I think we can do better.”
Hale said most of the wild pitches are not “blockable” by Susac or fellow catcher Tommy Splaine, either because the pitcher misses to the opposite side of the plate or they spike the ball far in front of the plate. Cutting back on throwing the pitches that are most likely to go wild isn’t a viable option, he said.
“If you start taking out pitches, we’ve seen what happens when we just throw one pitch or two pitches, they have to be able to use their whole repertoire,” Hale said. “And that might be something that other teams look at, when they get a guy on third. Well, you know, these guys have not had a lot of success throwing this pitch without throwing it in the dirt they made you just eliminate it. So you don’t want to ever do that.
“It’s something we really want to clean up towards the end of the season here, because that’s sort of been the recipe to disaster for us with runs scored. The hit or the walk, or the hit batsmen, the ball to the backstop, and here we go. The guy’s at third base, you just roll it to the infield and you get a run. We’re trying to get better at that.”
Nevada (21-17) comes to Tucson batting .318, which ranks sixth in Division I. The Wolf Pack are also in the top 20 nationally in scoring (8.9 runs per game) and on-base percentage (.415) but their 6.78 team ERA is in the bottom third in the country.