Growing up in Tucson, Kiko Romero went to plenty of Arizona baseball games, but he isn’t certain he ever had the good fortune of taking in an Arizona/ASU clash at either Hi Corbett Field or the old on-campus Sancet Field.
“I might have went to one maybe a couple years, but it was up in Tempe,” Romero said.
Now set to play in his first Territorial Cup clash, Romero and the rest of the Wildcats are trying to look at the Sun Devils as just another opponent.
“I don’t think anything actually needs to be added to” the matchup, Romero said. “I mean, obviously, we don’t like ASU. That rivarly has been going on for a long time. I think we just need to go and do business.”
Romero is one of four UA players from the Tucson area, while another five are from the Phoenix area. ASU has 12 Phoenix-area players on its roster and its center fielder, freshman Isaiah Jackson, is from Vail.
“I think in today’s baseball, everybody in the Pac-12, these guys all played with somewhere, against somewhere, in all these different travel teams that they play on,” UA coach Chip Hale. “It’s a lot different than it used to be. These guys played against each other high school. Some of them played with each other in high school. It’s gonna be fun. I think they get a little more keyed up. And plus, it’s Arizona-Arizona State. So that’s exciting.”
Arizona (13-6, 3-3 Pac-12) took two of three from ASU (13-8, 2-1) at Hi Corbett last season, while also dropping a nonconference midweek game at Phoenix Municipal Stadium before knocking ASU out of the Pac-12 Tournament in Scottsdale in May.
The UA took two of three in Phoenix in 2021 and swept the Sun Devils on the road in 2017.
But it will be coming into this weekend with a 7-game Pac-12 road losing streak, having been swept at UCLA last weekend.
Pitching staffs take center stage
This series will feature three of the top four hitters in the Pac-12, as Romero leads the conference with a .410 batting average followed by ASU catcher Ryan Campos (a former UA signee) second at .405 and Arizona catcher Cameron LaLiberte (.386) in fourth. The Wildcats also have the top two RBI producers in the league in CF Mac Bingham (27) and Romero (26).
But pitching may be where the series will be decided, and to this point Arizona appears to have a distinct advantage. The UA’s team ERA of 4.34 is more than a run better than ASU (5.43), and its ERA in conference games is 4.76 compared to 7.96 for the Sun Devils.
Friday night starter TJ Nichols (3-1, 4.82) will be making his fifth career start against ASU, though he’s yet to record a win. He started the Pac-12 tourney elimination game win over the Sun Devils last May, as well the opener in Tucson a month earlier that ended on Chase Davis’ walk-off home run in the 10th inning.
“He’s pitching better and better, his stuff’s been good,” Hale said of Nichols. “His velocity has maintained up in mid to high 90s. He’ll have a breakout game where he will give us seven, maybe eight maybe a complete game at some point. You never know when it’s gonna be.”
Yet Nichols went a season-low 4.2 innings at UCLA, giving up five runs and four walks (both season highs). None of Arizona’s starting pitchers made it out of the fifth last weekend, but unlike a year ago when the inability for starters to go long was a big problem, this season the added depth in the bullpen has negated that issue.
“It’s nice knowing that you got about 15 guys on your back that can all carve, and that helps a lot for sure,” Nichols said.
He singled out freshman right-hander Casey Hintz, who has made eight relief appearances, as a big surprise to this point. Hintz is one of seven Arizona relievers who have pitched at least five times and has thrown at least six innings, while Nevada transfer Cam Walty has gone multiple innings in his two outings since returning from injury.
ASU, on the other hand, has used seven different starters—Arizona has used four—and has averaged 4.5 relievers per game as it tries to figure out the best options.
“They’re a different team than they were last year, they went to the transfer portal pretty heavily with the pitching,” Hale said. “So we’re trying to figure that out right now, look at all their pitchers.”
Kiko vs. Keaschell
The last two Pac-12 players of the week will be in action as well. Romero won it last week after going 11 for 17 with three homers, 10 RBI, eight runs scored and a 2.003 OPS, and Keaschell earned it this week thanks to a 9-for-13, two-homer, eight-RBI performance in a series win at Utah.
Both are transfers, as Keaschell comes from San Francisco and the West Coast Conference and Romero is junior college transfer from Central Arizona, where he used wood bats all season in 2022 en route to smacking 25 home runs.
So far with the Wildcats he’s hit six homers, has an .808 slugging percentage and a 1.281 OPS. Not bad considering he started the year 4 for 22 with three RBI in his first six games.
“Me and (hitting coach) Toby (DeMello) were going over a lot of timing and stuff like that,” Romero said. “Since that first weekend, getting to face (Tennessee’s Chase) Dollander, a lot of good arms in that tournament, really prepared me for this this season.”
Romero batted leadoff in Tuesday’s 11-2 win over Utah Tech but mostly has been in the 3 or 4 hole.
“We’ll see where we end up batting him this weekend, but it’s exciting to watch,” Hale said. “He’s just a really good baseball player.”
Nonconference game added to May slate
Arizona has replaced the postponed game against Cal State Fullerton from last week with a May 15 tilt at UC-Irvine, another team from the Big West Conference. That contest, set for a 6 p.m. PT first pitch, will be played on the tail end of the Wildcats’ trip to Stanford May 12-14 and will serve as their final road game of the regular season.