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Arizona baseball prepared to ‘empty the tank’ against ASU in Pac-12 Tournament opener

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After getting swept at Oregon to end the regular season a year ago, Arizona coach Chip Hale thought his team needed to win a few games in the Pac-12 Tournament to ensure a spot in the NCAA tourney.

There’s no such uncertainty this time around. The Wildcats have to win the conference’s automatic bid in order to make the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season.

But unlike a year ago, the Pac-12 tourney doesn’t allow room for error. Gone is the 8-team, double-elimination format from the inaugural event, replaced by a 9-team field featuring three 3-team pools.

Each team is guaranteed two games, but as the No. 8 seed the Wildcats (30-23) would have to go 2-0 in their pool in order to advance to the semifinals. A loss in their first game, against rival ASU at 10 a.m. PT Tuesday at Scottsdale Stadium, and they’d be unable to advance.

“It’s win or go home pretty much for us,” Hale said. “Our thinking is win tomorrow, and that’s all we’re worried about. We’ll empty the tank for every game now.”

The UA’s pool includes No. 2 seed Oregon State (39-16) and fifth-seeded ASU(31-22), teams it went a combined 1-6 against this season. The Wildcats were swept on the road by both the Beavers and Sun Devils in conference play, though they did crush ASU 20-0 at Hi Corbett Field in a nonconference game last month.

Arizona heads to Scottsdale with far more momentum than ASU, which before taking two of three against UCLA to end the regular season had lost eight of nine in Pac-12 play. The Wildcats had won four in a row before dropping their finale against USC, a series they won by scoring 25 runs against a Trojans pitching staff that held ASU to two runs in a sweep May 13-15.

“They’re still good team,” Hale said of ASU. “They got they got a really good lineup.”

ASU is planning to start junior right-hander Josh Hansell, who is 2-0 with a 6.52 ERA in 16 appearances including three stars. He allowed two runs in one-third of an inning in Tucson on April 19, walking two of three batters he faced, not nearly the sample size ASU’s hitters have on Arizona starter Aiden May.

“I think we caught them at a bad time,” said May, a right-hander who gave up six runs and nine hits (including three home runs) in a 10-6 loss at ASU on March 26. “Obviously, they were hot at the time. I didn’t execute some of the pitches that I maybe wanted to. They got a few lucky hits and then I let up a few big ones myself. I’ve taken all of that into consideration and I feel really good going into this outing. I’ve refined a lot of stuff and I’ve changed a lot of my approach and everything, and I feel like I match up really well against them.”

Hale describes May, a junior college transfer from Pima, as a “stuff” guy, with possibly the best of that on the team. He was originally set to start the regular-season finale, but once Arizona had clinched a spot in the Pac-12 tourney the day before the decision was to save him for Tuesday.

“He’s got strikeout stuff,” Hale said. “We’re going to call pitches that we feel like are his best pitches against these hitters. And we’re very excited that we were able to hold him off. Hopefully, things go well. If they don’t, we’ll have a plan for that also.”

May is 4-2 with a 7.12 ERA in 13 starts. He leads the team with 62 strikeouts in 60.2 innings but has also walked 26 batters, including seven in a 5-inning outing against Utah.

“If you noticed, I’m not real keen on guys walking people,” Hale said. “That’s kind of been our mantra as a staff. And one guy who has walked some guys is Aiden, but we leave him in there because he has the ability to pitch out of it with his stuff. So I think if he can calm down and just let his stuff work, he’s a pretty darn good pitcher.”

May said what has helped him this year is knowing he has a solid defense behind him. The Wildcats’ .978 fielding percentage tied for second-best in the Pac-12 this season, and their 44 errors in 53 games is a major improvement from 2022 when they had 66 in 65 games.

“I know that even if I don’t make the best pitch and somebody hits it hard that there’s a good chance that somebody behind me is really going to step up and make a great play,” May said.

Leading that charge is senior shortstop Nik McClaughry, who is a top contender for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. He has four errors in 229 chances, leading the Pac-12 with 162 assists.

McClaughry said last year’s Pac-12 Tournament, in which Arizona went 2-2 and reached the semifinals, was good preparation for NCAA tourney, which saw the UA fall to eventual national champion Ole Miss in the Coral Gables Regional final.

This time, though, the approach will be a little more urgent knowing that Arizona can’t afford to lose any games.

The Wildcats played an elimination game against ASU last year as well, rallying to win 8-6 thanks to a bases-clearing triple by Mac Bingham in the bottom of the eighth. Having the Sun Devils be the first opponent might make some people think the game is even bigger, but McClaughry said the opponent doesn’t matter right now.

“I told (the team) we’re burning the boats, no going back now,” he said. “I mean, it’s already a big game for us. We got to win some games in order to get into the (NCAA) tournament. And I think no matter who you’re playing, I think it doesn’t really matter. A lot of people on the outside will probably make it a bigger deal than it is, but I think it’s important to just play like any other game because you don’t want to get too caught up in the atmosphere of the ASU game.”

Pool play vs. double elimination

Hale said he was “one of the key guys in the room” when Pac-12 baseball coaches voted to change the tournament format. The main reasons were to protect the top seeds in the conference, particularly those in the middle of the pack, from having a bad performance in the conference tourney impact their NCAA chances, as well as protect them from being worn out going into regionals.

Exhibit A: UCLA’s ridiculous 25-22, 10-inning win over Oregon State in the 2022 semifinals, which took almost six hours to play and required a second game (won 8-7 by OSU) that began 30 minutes later.

Both OSU and UCLA made the NCAA Tournament but both ended up being eliminated by Auburn, with OSU losing a 3-game Super Regional at home.

“They went to regionals and were just not the same teams,” Hale said.

Hale said the new format doesn’t end up helping Arizona, but he does believe if the Wildcats were to win their pool and reach the conference final they should get consideration for an at-large NCAA bid.

“If we were able to get to the finals of the of this tournament, I feel like we are a legitimate regional team,” he said.

As for how to advance out of pool play, going 2-0 automatically advances a team to the semifinals. But in the case of a 3-way tie at 1-1, the highest-seeded team in a pool would move on. The fourth semifinal spot goes to the highest-seeded team that didn’t win its pool (but also didn’t go 0-2).

In other words, if Arizona loses to ASU on Tuesday it’s mathematically eliminated from advancing, thus making Wednesday’s game against Oregon State meaningless.