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Pac-12 Baseball Tournament: Early lead (in early morning game) can set tone for Arizona

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Arizona ended the regular season losing three straight games at Oregon, and now has to take on the Ducks once again to open the first-ever Pac-12 Baseball Tournament. But while on paper that should make the Wildcats an underdog, all that goes out the door with a completely different venue and much more favorable weather.

“They’re coming to our weather, they’re coming to our type of fields,” UA coach Chip Hale said Monday. “They’re coming to dirt, they’re coming to grass. And we have to use that to our advantage.”

Oregon, like the other Pac-12 teams in the Pacific Northwest, plays on an artificial turf field. Scottsdale Stadium is natural grass, just like what Arizona plays on at Hi Corbett Field, and the last time it took on a school from that part of the country on grass it went pretty well.

The UA (35-21) took two of three at home from Oregon State, which at the time was running away with the regular season title. The Beavers ended up finishing second, and are on the other side of the Pac-12 tourney bracket.

Arizona, as the No. 5 seed, will be the visiting team for the 9 a.m. PT Wednesday start against the fourth-seeded Ducks (35-21). That gives the Wildcats a chance, despite feeling like the home team because of a high likelihood they’ll have a strong fan showing, of being able to score first and set the tone for the game.

“It’d be nice to help our pitchers out, give them an early lead,” UA catcher Daniel Susac said. “You have to bring your own energy every game, but it’s also tough when you’re losing the game. It’s tough to bring that energy. So I think, if we get up to early leads, even the Oregon State game when we lost 12-9, when we were up early, our dugout was engaged all game, because we gave them a chance to be energetic, which then flowed into the next two games.

Arizona is 20-6 this season when scoring first, compared to 15-15 when the opponent does.

The Pac-12 tourney is a double-elimination format, and if Arizona loses the first game it could end up playing six games in five days if it made the conference championship on Sunday night. That’s going to mean having to use a lot of pitchers, to the point that Hale said freshman first baseman Tommy Splaine could get into a game on the mound after making only one appearance all season.

The first game, against Oregon, will be a bullpen game, with sophomore right-hander Dawson Netz getting the start. Susac said how Netz does will dictate how the others behind him fare.

“I think the biggest part to a bullpen day is the first guy, though, he sets the tone for the rest of them,” Susac said. “It makes their job a little easier. If somebody has to come in second, maybe clean something up, it might be harder. If the first guy comes up and sets a tone, which I feel extremely confident about Netz to do, it’ll be a great game.”

Susac said the Pac-12 tourney will probably remind him of his travel ball days. That’s what most of the Wildcats will have to use as a comparison, since only three players on the team have prior experience in a conference tourney while at other colleges.

That includes outfielder Tanner O’Tremba, who as a freshman in 2019 played five games in four days with Texas Tech in the Big 12 tourney.

“I remember it was long, but it was fun,” O’Tremba said. “It was a lot of days. It was a lot of fun. It was a lot of baseball. And I think it just got everyone really excited for the postseason, and that’s really what I remember. We didn’t win it, but it was a lot of fun, and just prepping for the postseason was a really good experience for us.”

Oregon has only played three of its last 28 games on grass, when it was at ASU May 13-15. The Ducks took two of three but also committed four errors in that series, and for the season have 16 of their 44 errors in 13 grass-field games.

“In the state of Arizona, I think sometimes you’ll see teams come in and they’ll have maybe their statistically worst weekend here,” Susac said.