There is no award given by the Pac-12 for Most Improved Defense, otherwise Arizona would be in line to claim that honor.
The Wildcats (35-18, 16-11 Pac-12) enter this weekend’s regular-season finale series at Oregon (32-21, 15-12) having gone eight consecutive games without committing an error. Dating back to the 1998 season that is the longest streak of errorless play for the program, which for at least the past decade hasn’t been known for its defense.
Since 2012, Arizona has averaged higher than one error per game in seven of 10 seasons and is a shade over that this spring (54 errors in 53 games). The Wildcats’ fielding percentage, .973, is 89th in Division I, but in Pac-12 play they’re third-best at .978.
Having a solidified infield has certainly helped.
Tony Bullard, Nik McClaughry and Garen Caulfield have started nearly every game the last month at third, shortstop and second, respectively, while Tommy Splaine has gotten the bulk of the starts at first base. Daniel Susac has started all but seven games behind the plate.
That’s a far cry from earlier in the season when injuries and inexperience made Arizona’s infield play an adventure from game to game.
“I think when everyone’s in their more natural position there’s just a little bit more confidence out there,” said Caulfield, who began the season at third base when Bullard was unavailable due to a shoulder injury. “We were really working hard at it to kind of piece that infield together at the time, and it was tough at times. Getting Tony back really helped us with getting guys in there more natural positions and start making plays for our guys.”
It also helps that McClaughry, who has to be the frontrunner for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, covers so much ground at short. He leads the conference with 164 assists and has been part of 34 of Arizona’s conference-leading 49 doubles plays that are tied for seventh nationally.
UA coach Chip Hale said McClaughry’s incredible footwork sets the tone for everything else he does.
“Your feet make your hands good,” said Hale, who played second base at the UA in the 1980s and both second and third during his professional career. “Some people are born with really good feet.”
Susac, though he’s been charged with nine passed balls (seven in Pac-12 play) and has five errors, has been key in limiting opponents’ running game. Arizona has only allowed 21 stolen bases all season, while conference foes have attempted just seven steals in 27 games.
Oregon State, which averages more than one steal per game in Pac-12 play, did not attempt one last weekend when the Wildcats took two of three at Hi Corbett Field. Oregon has 57 steals this season, swiping six (without a caught stealing) in a series win at ASU last weekend.
Not allowing extra baserunners or bases because of defense is essential in a series that figures to be fairly high-scoring. The Ducks are the second-highest scoring team in Pac-12 play (Arizona is fifth) and both have a conference ERA over 5.1.
Oregon is 22-10 this season at PK Park, where the fences have been moved in and where 75 home runs have been hit in 32 games. Of Arizona’s 56 homers this season, 34 have been hit in 22 road or neutral-site games.
Pac-12 Tournament scenarios
Arizona has clinched a spot in next week’s inaugural Pac-12 tourney, which runs May 25-29 in Scottsdale, but depending on what happens this weekend it could end up anywhere from the No. 2 to No. 5 seed.
If the Wildcats get the No. 4 or No. 5 seed—the most likely scenario—it would play in the first game of the tourney Wednesday at 9 a.m. PT at Scottsdale Stadium, the Spring Training home of the San Francisco Giants. And their most likely opponent in that 4/5 game would be their foe this weekend, Oregon.
To get the No. 2 seed, the UA would need to sweep the Ducks and have two of the three teams above it—Oregon State, Stanford and UCLA—have a bad final weekend. UCLA is at OSU, while Stanford hosts last-place USC, so No. 3 might be the high mark but only if Arizona pulls off a sweep.