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Arizona baseball hoping to keep momentum going as Pac-12 play opens vs. Cal

arizona-wildcats-baseball-preview-cal-golden-bears-pac12-conference-chip-hale-pitching-catchers-2023 Arizona Athletics

At this point a year ago, Arizona was 10-3 heading into the start of Pac-12 play. This season the Wildcats are 9-3.

But while the records are basically the same, the way Chip Hale and his staff are looking at the team’s start is very different.

“We need to get better and we know that,” Hale said Tuesday night after the UA hung on to win 12-10 at Grand Canyon, its sixth straight victory.

Arizona’s first Pac-12 series begins Friday night against Cal, whom it opened on the road against in 2022. The Wildcats took two of three from the Golden Bears (8-3) in Berkeley, then swept eventual conference champ Stanford at home en route to a 9-3 start in the league.

The UA ended up going 16-14 in the Pac-12, finishing in fifth place.

“Last year we kind of started so hot, especially in conference, that I think we got sort of a false sense of where we were,” Hale said. “We know we have to improve a lot.”

Arizona is hitting .305, third-best in the Pac-12, and its 4.34 ERA ranks seventh out of 11 schools. Cameron LaLiberte has the league’s top batting average (.471), while Chase Davis is the home run leader (6) and Mac Bingham the top run producer (18 RBI).

LaLiberte has been splitting catching duties with Tommy Splaine, alternating starts at that position while also getting a run at designated hitter. Hale said before the season the plan was to split them until Pac-12 play started, with the expectation that one would stand out from the pack, but Splaine is hitting .333 in his six starts.

Who is on the mound to start the game will also factor into the backstop choice.

“It’s hard now because they’ve caught certain guys, so that’s part of it, too,” Hale said.

With that in mind, Arizona is mixing things up in its rotation. Junior right-hander TJ Nichols (2-0, 4.32) remains the Friday night starter, but lefty Bradon Zastrow (2-0, 3.38) has pitched well enough to be moved from Sunday to Saturday, while righty Aiden May (1-0, 6.92) is scheduled to pitch the series finale in place of righty Anthony ‘Tonko’ Susac (0-2, 5.40).

May went the first three innings against Grand Canyon, allowing four runs, but in 13 innings this season he’s yielded just one walk.

The start of Pac-12 play also means Arizona has to pare down its roster of available players, from 37 to 27. The Wildcats have used 15 position players and 16 pitchers, including righty Cam Walty, a Nevada transfer who made his debut Tuesday.

Two other right-handed pitchers that were expected to be part of Arizona’s plans this season, freshman Kenan Elarton and sophomore Josh Randall, have yet to see action while dealing with undisclosed injuries.