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Arizona baseball hoping recent momentum can help solve road woes

Redshirt freshman Jackson Kent will make his first career start Friday night
Arizona Athletics

At the halfway mark of the Pac-12 schedule, Arizona’s 5-10 record is good enough for ninth out of 11 teams. Chip Hale told his team last weekend that a .500 mark in league play was still possible if the Wildcats won each of their remaining series.

“There’s no more mulligans, to put it simply,” Hale said Tuesday night after Arizona beat New Mexico State.

That 14-2 victory was the third in a row for the UA after dropping 10 of 12. The first two in that win streak, against Washington, snapped a 10-game conference skid that was the program’s longest since 1998.

There’s still one losing streak to break, though. Arizona (17-13, 5-10) has lost 10 straight Pac-12 road games, dating back to last season, as it opens a 3-game series at Washington State (19-12, 5-9).

“We’re gonna have to play really good baseball to win on the road,” Hale said. “I think we’ve competed fine. I think that’s the one thing about this whole deal is, everybody was so uptight about the losses, and you’re judged by your wins and losses in sports. I thought we were playing fine, we were playing good baseball. We weren’t getting the big hit when we needed to, we weren’t getting the big pitch when we needed to. The other teams were. We kind of flipped it a little bit with Washington, we had a good night (against NMSU), and we just have to carry that good feeling and keep it going.”

Arizona is 1-6 in true road games, winning at Grand Canyon on March 7, and 4-7 away from Hi Corbett Field. The Wildcats went 3-1 at the MLB Desert Invitational to open the season, starting out with a win over preseason No. 2 Tennessee.

This will be Hale’s first trip to Pullman, as Washington State was not part of the “Six Pac”—the unofficial name of the Pac-10’s South Division—during his UA career from 1984-87. The Wildcats have had quite a bit of success there, winning six consecutive series dating back to 2011, but they haven’t won a road series in Pac-12 play since sweeping Washington last April as part of a 9-3 start.

Arizona is hitting .300 in the conference, third-best, while WSU is batting just .248, and four UA players with at least 30 conference at-bats are hitting .300 or better. The Wildcats have the worst ERA in league games, at 6.91, compared to 5.51 for the Cougars, but they have allowed only nine runs the last three games and the starting pitching has been the catalyst for that.

That includes starters coming out of the bullpen for extended outings, as was the case last week when TJ Nichols made his first relief appearance since the 2021 College World Series with four shutout innings after Bradon Zastrow went the first five.

Arizona went with the “piggyback” approach the first two games of the Washington series, with Jackson Kent going 4.1 innings in relief of Tonko Susac in the opener, and Kent is now in line for his first career start. The redshirt freshman left-hander is scheduled to start Friday night, with lefty Zastrow and righty Aiden May following.

Nichols figures to follow one of lefties on Friday or Saturday.

The Tuesday nonconference win over an overmatched NMSU team began with righty Cam Walty throwing five shutout innings in his first start. Hale said he could be available in relief on Sunday after throwing only 68 pitches, but for the most part the Wildcats’ bullpen options will be limited to the best available arms.

Sixteen pitchers have appeared in games this season, 14 in Pac-12 play, but freshmen Casey Hintz and Tony Pluta and senior George Arias Jr. have seen their outings dwindle as the season goes on. Lefty Eric Orloff and righties Chris Barraza, Derek Drees, Dawson Netz and Trevor Long will get the bulk of the relief innings.

“It’s almost like, think about a basketball game,” Hale said. “At some point that coach shortens his bench, right? And he uses eight guys, or uses nine guys, or just seven guys. We’re at that point with our pitchers now that we’re gonna run with these (top) guys. It’s gonna be tough for the guys who don’t have a lot of outings right now to figure in there. There’ll be guys go on the road, but it’s gonna be hard to get in games.”