It’s a 5-horse race, and down the stretch they come!
Pardon the shameless Kentucky Derby reference, but it’s fitting when trying to handicap the Pac-12 baseball title race. With three weekends left, three games separate the top five teams in the chase to win the regular season title and, for the first time, the No. 1 seed in a postseason conference tournament.
Oregon State (35-9, 15-6) holds a one-game lead on UCLA (30-14, 14-7), with Arizona (32-15, 13-8) and Oregon (28-16) two games out. Stanford (26-14, 12-9) is also in striking distance for the top spot.
The top four teams play a combined 12 games against each other over the last three weeks, including the final weekend when Arizona visits Oregon and UCLA hosts OSU. OSU hosts rival Oregon this weekend, while the Beavers come to Hi Corbett Field to face the Wildcats May 13-15.
Arizona’s final three opponents have a combined conference record of 34-29, a mark dragged down by this weekend’s foe, USC. The Trojans (22-20, 6-15) are in last place and have gone 3-14 in Pac-12 play since a 3-1 start that included a series win at UCLA.
The Wildcats are 11-5 in true road games this season, and by taking at least two at USC it would put them in a great position to have a shot at first place.
Stanford is the wild card in the mix, as its final three opponents—Cal, Utah and USC—are a combined 27-39 in Pac-12 play. Two of those series are at home, where the Cardinal has won seven straight against conference foes, though next weekend’s visit to Utah (25-17-1, 10-11) could prove to be tough as Arizona found out last month when it dropped two of three in Salt Lake City.
Tiebreakers will likely come into play when seeding the Pac-12 tourney, which will be a double-elimination event and be played May 25-29 in Scottsdale. Arizona has the tiebreaker on Stanford, whom it swept at home in March, but UCLA has that edge after taking two of three from the Wildcats at Hi Corbett a week later.
But in addition to finishing higher in the league standings and getting a better seed for the Pac-12 tourney, a good record down the stretch can keep alive Arizona’s slim hopes of hosting in the NCAA Tournament.
Arizona entered Thursday at No. 39 in the RPI and is projected by D1Baseball and Baseball America to be a No. 2 seed in regional pods, traveling to either No. 12 Louisville or No. 7 Oklahoma State, respectively. Road wins, even against a sub-100 RPI team like USC, will provide a boost, as will any victories against Oregon State (No. 2) or Oregon (No. 23).
Tonko taking over Sunday spot
Arizona’s pitching rotation for the USC series has the usual suspects for the first two games, but the final spot this weekend is going to arguably the Wildcats’ most improved arm from the start of the season.
Freshman right-hander Anthony ‘Tonko’ Susac (4-1, 7.30) will start the finale over sophomore righty Chandler Murphy (1-2, 8.75). Both started last weekend in the 4-game series against Nevada, with Murphy going 5.2 innings in the opener on Thursday and Susac throwing five innings on Sunday.
Susac, the cousin of UA catcher Daniel Susac, allowed a run and two hits in the 8-2 victory. That came five days after he threw five innings to get the win at New Mexico State, and in his last three appearances he’s allowed just four runs and nine hits over 13 innings. He allowed 26 runs over his first 24 college innings as he worked his way back from elbow surgery in December 2020.
Sophomore righty TJ Nichols (5-2, 4.41) will start Friday, with senior lefty Garrett Irvin (4-3, 2.94) going Saturday. Irvin went eight innings last Saturday but got the loss as Arizona fell 2-0 to Nevada, ending a 216-game scoring streak.