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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona faces season-defining series against Stanford

The No. 8 Arizona baseball team is only six games into the Pac-12 Conference season, but its upcoming series with No. 2 Stanford represents a chance for the Wildcats to distinguish themselves as a legitimate conference contender — or fall firmly in the middle of the pack.

The three-game series against the Cardinal is the only time the two will meet during the regular season, and while conference play just began, there will be no better opportunity for Arizona to make a serious movement in the conference hierarchy.

At 4-2, the Wildcats sit tied for third in the Pac-12, behind Stanford (15-2, 2-0) and No. 6 UCLA (17-4, 4-1) — but the conference features six teams in Baseball America’s Top 25. If the Wildcats squander this opportunity, it won’t be easy to bunch up victories and make a push to get back into the race later in the year.

But the importance of the series isn’t just an early season arms race for position in the standings — the Wildcats also need to prove they deserve to be ranked among the nation’s elite.

Arizona is just 5-5 in its last 10 games. While that includes a series win at No. 22 Oregon State and a series split at No. 9 Rice, the Wildcats were outscored by nine runs during that stretch. Though Arizona had some impressive wins, none of them were convincing.

The team stumbled a few times as well — it was swept at home by New Mexico State after dropping a game in the previous series to Washington State, which is tied for ninth in the conference.

A series win against a national title contender in Stanford would go a long way toward solidifying the current hype surrounding the Wildcats’ team and keep them on pace to contend for the Pac-12 title.

In order for that to happen, though, Arizona will need ace Kurt Heyer to break out of a funk that’s seen him have back-to-back poor starts.

The preseason All-American is 4-1 on the season with a team-leading 2.09 ERA, which is fourth in the Pac-12 for pitchers with more than 28 innings pitched. Heyer is also second on the team and sixth in the conference with 40 strikeouts.

However, Heyer has been far from his usual dominant self in his past two starts. He’s 0-1 with a 6.00 ERA in his last two games — both of which the Wildcats lost.

During that period, Heyer pitched just 12 innings and gave up 18 hits with only 7 strikeouts, and his 1.75 WHIP has been far below average for a Friday starter. This mark is miles away from the 0.87 WHIP he had during his first four starts.

One or two lackluster performances are expected during a long season, but three in a row would spell doom for the Wildcats’ hopes of winning the series.

Heyer’s consistency is even more crucial considering the lack of depth in the bullpen. The Wildcats have shown the ability to close out ballgames as long as starters can stay in the game awhile and eat up crucial innings.

Freshman Mathew Troupe, who has a 2.81 ERA in 16 innings, and junior Stephen Manthei, who boasts a 3.44 ERA in 18.1 innings, haven’t been flawless this season, but they have combined for a 6-2 record with six saves between them.

Troupe blew a save in a 6-5 loss against Oregon State, but rebounded the next two nights with saves in both games to secure the series victory.

However, if Heyer — or any other starter — has to be taken out before head coach Andy Lopez can call on either of his two closers, things will start to get dicey for the Wildcats.

None of the other relievers have an ERA under 4.50 and two Wildcats — freshman Lucas Long and junior Nick Cunningham — have an ERA higher than 6.50.

In this crucial early conference series, Arizona must have its starters deliver if they want to win the against a balanced Stanford team that has an offense hitting .309 and a pitching staff combining for a 2.67 ERA.

Another poor start by Heyer would not only put Arizona in an undesirable position for the rest of the weekend, but it would also severely hurt Heyer’s hopes of winning any post-season accolades.

The Wildcats won’t have a lot of room for error this weekend — and if they end up losing this series at home, it’ll be tough for them to catch the Cardinal come season’s end.

— Kyle Johnson is a journalism junior. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu or on Twitter via @WildcatSports .

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