Fifty college baseball games are in the books for Arizona, but how it does in the next three will determine if the season continues beyond this weekend.
The Wildcats (28-22, 10-17 Pac-12) enter the final series of the regular season in the hunt for one of the last spots in next week’s Pac-12 Tournament. Six teams have clinched bids, including USC (32-20-1, 16-11), whom the UA hosts Thursday through Saturday at Hi Corbett Field, with Arizona one of five squads battling for the final three.
“It’s just about winning now,” head coach Chip Hale said. “We just have to find ways to win these games. “Obviously you look at the record and it isn’t what we want it to be to start, but we have a chance to get into our conference tournament with some wins this weekend. And I just feel like the guys are fighting and doing the best they can. So as a coach and as a staff, that’s all we can ask.”
Hale said he saw “great resolve” from his team on the final road trip, one that began with another walkoff loss—after rallying from down 8-2 at conference regular-season champ Stanford—but ended with a pair of 1-run victories in diametrically opposed games.
The first, on Sunday, saw the UA blow several multiple-run leads but still manage to knock off Stanford 21-20 in 10 innings. A little more than a day later, the Wildcats won 4-3 at UC-Irvine despite sitting several regulars in favor of freshmen.
“They were not going to be denied,” Hale said of Sunday. “And then on Monday, it was really interesting to watch them, because we gave some guys off that usually play, and they were into the game probably more than they usually are when they’re playing. They were really excited for the young guys to get a chance.”
Both of those wins were against top-50 RPI opponents, raising Arizona’s record in Quad 1 games to 6-11. The six Q1 victories are tied for third-most in the Pac-12.
Eight of Arizona’s last 12 games have seen the opponent have the tying or winning run at the plate in their final at-bat. The Wildcats are 4-4 in those situations, an indication the team has been playing under pressure for a while.
“I felt like that was what we were kind of facing last year, also, when we went into the conference tournament,” Hale said. “We had to win a couple, I thought, to get into the (NCAA) tournament. Maybe we didn’t, we were a 2 seed, so maybe we did not, but that’s how I felt. That was the perception of the team. We’ve been through that.”
Picked to finish 10th in the 11-team Pac-12, USC has undergone a quick turnaround under first-year coach Andy Stankiewicz, who was hired last spring after 11 seasons at Grand Canyon. The Trojans have doubled their conference win total from a year ago, guaranteed their first winning Pac-12 record since 2015 and just their third 30-win season since 2005.
“There’s no doubt Andy has cleaned it up over there,” Hale said. “They’re playing extremely good defense. They run the bases well. There’s some bunting, there’s some hitting and running, their pitchers do a good job picking off. It’s just a cleaner, cleaner version.
“I felt like Irvine plays a lot like USC does, the same kind of style of baseball. So our guys got a glimpse of that.”
USC’s best asset is its pitching. It has the top ERA in the conference, both overall (4.06) and in league play (3.80). The Trojans have produced back-to-back Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week winners in Caden Aoki and Blake Sodersten, and fellow starter Tyler Stromsberg also won the award in April.
The Trojans aren’t particularly stellar at the plate, hitting .268 in the league and averaging the second-fewest runs per game (5.7). But they do feature the Division I leader in triples, Austin Overn, who has 13 heading into a series at a park where Arizona has hit 22 in 28 home games (compared to two for opponents).
Arizona won back-to-back road games for the first time in more than a year but still finished with a 4-14 road mark, including 2-13 in Pac-12 play. The Wildcats are 21-7 at home, winning eight of 12 in the league including two of three over second-place Washington.
“Being at home is a huge advantage for us,” Hale said. “Our crowds have been great. They’ve helped us out a lot. Obviously we’re used to our stadium, our field, our weather, so hopefully that’ll be an advantage for us.”
USC is 4-8 on the road in the Pac-12, and before winning Tuesday at Loyola Marymount hadn’t won away from home since April 1.
The Wildcats are averaging just over 10 runs per game at Hi Corbett, scoring at least seven 23 times. They are 26-5 overall when scoring 7+, compared to 2-17 when scoring six or fewer.
Pac-12 Tourney scenarios
With three games left, Arizona could finish between seventh and 11th place. A sweep of USC would guarantee it no worse than a tie for ninth.
Like the Wildcats, the other four teams fighting for those last three Pac-12 tourney spots face a team from the top six this weekend:
- No. 7 UCLA (11-14-1) at No. 5 ASU (14-12)
- No. 8 Washington State (10-16) vs. No. 1 Stanford (20-7)
- No. 9 (tied) Arizona (10-17) vs. No. 4 USC (16-11)
- No. 9 (tied) Cal (10-17) at No. 2 Washington (16-10)
- No. 11 Utah (8-18-1) vs. No. 6 Oregon (14-13)
Conference win percentage will determine seeding, and with UCLA and Washington State having a game canceled because of weather (and UCLA also having a tie against Utah) the need for many head-to-head tiebreakers has been wiped out. One that could come into play is between Arizona and Cal, which would go in the UA’s favor since it swept the Golden Bears to open Pac-12 play in March.
By owning the tiebreaker over Cal, Arizona would finish ahead of the Golden Bears if they end up tied.
Award season begins
The Pac-12 will announce its individual awards next week, and players like Mac Bingham, Chase Davis, Nik McClaughry and Kiko Romero all figure to make the all-conference team in some form. Mason White is likely to land on the All-Freshman Team, as his .386 average in league games is third-best.
McClaughry should also be the frontrunner for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. He enters the final weekend with 148 assists, most in the league, and only four errors in 213 chances for a .981 fielding percentage, and last weekend got the on-air endorsement of Pac-12 broadcaster Roxy Bernstein:
"I think @NikMcclaughry should be the favorite to be Defensive Player of the Year in this conference." #BearDown— Arizona Baseball (@ArizonaBaseball) May 13, 2023
️ Tell 'em, @roxybernstein! pic.twitter.com/WxKC5V46Pg
n Wednesday, McClaughry was named a semifinalist for the Brooks Wallace Award, given to college baseball’s top shortstop.
And on Tuesday, five UA players were named to the College Sports Communicators Academic All-District team: Bingham, Trevor Long, Dawson Netz, TJ Nichols and Anthony ‘Tonko’ Susac.