Losers of four of the last six, including two of three at last-place USC, Arizona returns home for its final Pac-12 series at Hi Corbett Field this weekend. And it won’t be an easy one.
The Wildcats (33-17, 14-10) host conference leader Oregon State, which moved to No. 1 in Baseball America’s latest Top 25 while remaining second in the D1Baseball.com poll. The Beavers (39-9, 18-6) have won seven in a row, the last two via shutout, and are projected as the No. 2 overall seed in next month’s NCAA Tournament by both Baseball America and D1Baseball.
A tall task, for sure, but not one UA players and coaches are going to treat any differently.
“You don’t play the opponent, you just play the game,” right-handed reliever George Arias Jr. said Wednesday. “Obviously, things haven’t gone (the) way that we liked it to, but it’s baseball, it happens. I think if you continue have a deliberate plan and keep practicing what you do and just really honestly just trust your stuff, I think it doesn’t really matter (the opponent).”
Arizona will hold Senior Day ceremonies prior to Saturday’s game, when it will honor six players: pitchers Arias, Holden Christian, Quinn Flanagan, Jonathan Guardado and Garrett Irvin and outfielder Blake Paugh, all of whom are graduating this week.
UA coach Chip Hale said the distraction of graduation, as well as finals and (for the younger players) where to live after the dorms close may have contributed to the team’s recent play. The same goes for a flu bug that he says has been biting the team since it came back from a chilly trip to Omaha in mid-April.
“There’s a lot of other things they’re worried about,” he said. “Confidence level, I think they’re still fine.”
Considered an NCAA tourney lock for most of the season, Arizona’s postseason outlook is a little murkier after falling at USC. The Wildcats’ RPI is 41, and both Baseball America and D1Baseball have dropped them to a No. 3 regional seed in College Station, Texas and Stillwater, Okla., respectively.
Each projected field includes 13 at-large teams getting No. 3 seeds, so in effect the UA is considered one of the last baker’s dozen.
While Arizona’s remaining regular-season schedule is tough, it also provides opportunities to improve its resume. After OSU, the Wildcats finish at an Oregon team that has lost six in a row but is still in the top 30 in RPI.
“I think right now is a perfect time because you have No. 2 Oregon State coming in, and it’s kind of a win-win because, if we sweep them, we can kind of get rolling,” Irvin said. “I think as a team, we have that in our back pocket ... how we were playing at the beginning of the year, and I know that’s possible again, so I’m hoping that we can get rolling at the end of the season at the right time and roll through the playoffs.
“As a team, we’re all having a lot of fun right now, even though we’re losing, which kind of stinks. We all hate losing, but I’ve noticed more and more that the guys in the locker room, we all get along a lot more and we’re all having a lot of fun. So I think that’ll be a good combination of winning a lot of games and having a lot of fun.”
Hale said Arizona is sticking with the same starting pitchers as last weekend, with sophomore righty TJ Nichols starting Friday’s opener followed by lefty Irvin and then freshman righty Tonko Susac. Susac lasted only 2.1 innings last Sunday at USC after back-to-back strong starts, including five innings of one-run ball the week before against Nevada.
“We’re hoping we get the Nevada Tonko on Sunday, we can get at least five out of him,” Hale said.
The final series at Oregon begins on a Thursday, but Hale said all three starters should be good to go a day earlier than normal. That will also set them up for the Pac-12 Tournament, which begins on a Wednesday.
Pac-12 tourney bracket/schedule set
The Pac-12 has released the bracket for its inaugural conference tournament, which will run May 25-29 in Scottsdale.
The double elimination tourney will feature as many as four games played in a day, beginning at 9 a.m. PT each of those days. The May 29 title game does not have a start time yet, presumably in an effort to land a spot on one of the ESPN networks (only one Pac-12 game has been on there this season).
All other games are scheduled to be shown on the Pac-12 Network.