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Pitching woes at center of Arizona baseball’s historic Pac-12 skid

There’s a change in the starting rotation

arizona-wildcats-baseball-preview-washington-huskies-pitching-chip-hale-bullpen-tj-nichols-2023 Arizona Athletics

Arizona has the fourth-best batting average in Pac-12 play at .282, a slight uptick from the 2022 squad that included future MLB draft picks Daniel Susac and Tanner O’Tremba. But while that team managed to go 16-14 in the conference, reach the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals and get to the Coral Gables regional final in the NCAA tourney, the current squad faces a major uphill battle to return to the postseason.

Much taller than the 10-inch mound from which its entire pitching staff has been struggling the last three weeks.

The UA (14-12, 3-9 Pac-12) takes a 9-game conference skid, its worst since 2008, into a critical weekend series at Hi Corbett Field against Washington (18-8, 5-4). How the Wildcats do against the Huskies, whom they’ve swept three consecutive times, could determine if they can stay alive for a third straight NCAA bid.

“One thing we keep forgetting about, and we have to remind our team all the time, is it’s a long year,” UA coach Chip Hale said. “We have long way to go. And what happened last week has nothing really to do with what’s gonna happen this week. We have to remember that.”

Arizona hasn’t played in three consecutive NCAA tourneys since 2010-12, and dating back to that 3-year run its worst record at 26 games for a team that made the postseason was 18-8. Its worst 12-game conference mark on an NCAA team was 5-7.

Any shot the Wildcats have at turning their season around revolves around the pitching, which has been nothing short of terrible lately. Since sweeping Cal to open Pac-12 play, Arizona has allowed 88 runs and 132 hits over 94 innings across 11 games. It has issued 38 walks during that span, and for the season its 3.24 walks per nine innings ranks 14th nationally and second in the Pac-12.

“One of our goals going into the year was not to walk people,” Hale said. “Especially at the college level, those walks end up being runs. If you look at Aiden May (on Sunday) one of the issues was he walked two and both those guys scored after guys hit home runs. So if they’re just solo home runs it’s only two runs and now it’s four runs.”

But Arizona’s 8.65 strikeouts per nine is 156th out of 295 Division I teams and seventh in the conference, while the 10.82 hits per nine is 238th nationally and second-worst in the Pac-12.

In other words, the UA’s pitchers have become too hittable. It’s something Hale said he noticed when forced to watch the first two games last weekend against Oregon from home while serving a 2-game suspension.

“When we make our quality pitches, they weren’t hitting them,” he said. “It’s just we’re making too many mistakes ... in the zone. Most weekends you’ll make mistakes. You’ll make two, three mistakes in an outing, and they might get hurt once but the other ones are popped up or they swing and miss them. On those pitches this (last) weekend we didn’t get away with anything.”

Making matters worse is that Arizona’s pitching woes haven’t been limited to just a few guys; everyone is getting hit around. Twelve of the 13 arms used against Oregon allowed at least one run including right-hander Derek Drees, who had been scoreless in four previous Pac-12 appearances (and seven of nine for the season) before allowing back-to-back doubles in the ninth inning Sunday.

“We’ve run into three teams that, if you make a small mistake, they’ve been punishing it,” said Drees, a transfer from Butler. “In this league, like if you miss slightly, it’s not always gonna get hit that hard like it has been. Hopefully this weekend will be when everything starts to turn around.”

Drees, one of two pitchers Arizona added via the NCAA transfer portal, had originally committed to play for Notre Dame in 2023 before a coaching change. UA recruiting coordinator Tripp Couch swooped in after that happened, convincing Drees to come to Tucson for his final college season.

It didn’t hurt that his father, former MLB reliever Tom Drees, played with Hale in the minor leagues.

“That just ended up being random and everything just seemed to fall into perfect place,” Drees said.

Arizona’s bullpen has an 8.84 ERA during the 9-game conference skid, allowing 37 runs (36 earned) in 36.2 innings. But the starters have done no better, with the trio of TJ Nichols, Bradon Zastrow and May giving up 40 runs (36 earned) in 38.1 innings.

As a result, the UA is making some changes at the front end with the hope of aiding the back. Hale eluded to as much on Tuesday.

“Maybe we’ll do some piggy backing,” Hale said, referring to the concept of having a starter come on in relief of another starter.

The candidate for that role appears to be Nichols, who has been the Friday night starter every weekend this season but is not listed in the rotation against Washington. He allowed eight runs in 1.2 innings last Friday, and in his place for the series opener against the Huskies is Anthony ‘Tonko’ Susac, who began the year as the Sunday starter then after missing some time due to injury has been the Tuesday opener the last few weeks.

Zastrow and May are scheduled to start the second and third games, respectively.

While piggy backing can take some pressure off the pen, particularly in the middle innings, that doesn’t mean they’re being let off the hook.

“They need to be able to make their pitches, their quality pitches when they’re making those mistakes,” Hale said.

Davis makes midseason list

Junior left fielder Chase Davis has strengthened his case to be Arizona’s latest first-round draft pick, and his play this season has also landed him a spot on the Golden Spikes Award midseason watch list.

Davis’ 29 homers for his career are two shy of the top 10 in school history, a list he’d already be on had he been limited to just one start as a freshman in 2021. His 11 this season are second-most in the Pac-12, one behind Washington’s Will Simpson.

Bullard back?

Hale said third baseman Tony Bullard is a “full go” after missing the past five games with a concussion. The fifth-year senior is hitting only .203 with one home run and four RBI in 18 games, but his play at the hot corner has been a huge part of Arizona’s improved defense in 2023.

Arizona’s .976 fielding percentage is 53rd nationally, but during that 5-game absence the Wildcats had five errors and freshman Mason White wasn’t able to make some of the plays at third that Bullard has.