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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Junior class has Arizona baseball on top of Pac-12

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The No. 4 Arizona baseball team entered the season with high expectations, and 32 games into the 55-game season, it sits alone atop the Pac-12 and has a chance to create real separation this weekend, when it hosts No. 17 UCLA.

“Everybody is coming after you,” left fielder Johnny Field said. “We know what we have to do, and just because UCLA dropped the series (against Oregon), they are going to come to our place hungry. There is a lot at stake here in this next series.”

On paper the series lost a little bit of its luster thanks to two losses by UCLA to No. 16 Oregon — dropping it 12 spots in the College America poll.

But the matchup still puts Arizona (23-9, 9-3 Pac-12) against a team tied for second in the conference.

And since Oregon — the other team with an 8-4 Pac-12 record — doesn’t play the Wildcats until May 4, this is one of the best opportunities for Arizona to solidify itself as the Pac-12 frontrunner.

“We are just trying to keep the momentum going into this next Pac-12 weekend because we have a good opponent coming up and we just want to keep things rolling,” Field said.

The Wildcats didn’t rise to first place in the conference by accident. They came into the season ranked in the Top 25 in all polls, and so far the team has lived up to the hype.

And much of its success is thanks to a talented junior class that has helped create the Pac-12’s best offense.

Arizona is ranked first in the Pac-12 in batting average (.331), total runs (228), slugging percentage (.438) and stolen bases (49), and the juniors have been mostly responsible.

Alex Mejia, Robert Refsnyder, Seth Mejias-Brean and Joey Rickard are all in the conference’s top 10 in batting average, and combined with some talented underclassmen, the team has produced a lethal attack that is averaging more than seven runs per game over the last 14 games.

“That junior class has worked hard to be where they’re at right now, and hopefully they continue the path,” head coach Andy Lopez said. “They are a great group of guys … and they play good baseball on top of that.”

However, Field — a sophomore batting .333 — said there is still plenty of room to improve.

“We could have executed better as an offense,” Field said about the Utah series last weekend. “We left a lot of runners early on in the games in scoring position. This next weekend we have to find a way to get those two out hits and hopefully drive those runners in.”

It’ll be tough for the Wildcats to actually improve on the offensive end though, considering they have 31 more RBIs than the Pac-12’s second-ranked team, ASU. But the Wildcats do have room to improve defensively.

Arizona is ranked 10th in the Pac-12 with a .959 fielding percentage and has committed the second-most errors (52) in the conference.

Lopez said that in the very talented Pac-12, teams have to play well every inning in all facets of the game to win on a consistent basis, and that sloppy fielding could cost the Wildcats.

In fact it was the main factor in last Friday’s 7-6 loss to Utah, in which poor defense by catcher Riley Moore in the eighth turned an inning-ending strikeout into the eventual game-winning runs.

“For all intents and purposes, that game was won,” Lopez said. “But we don’t play good defense for one inning and we end up getting a loss out of it.”

Pitching also hasn’t been a strength for the team — its 3.86 ERA is third-worst in the conference.

But the Wildcats have only have two mid-week games left on their schedule, giving the staff plenty of rest between series.

The Wildcats are 4-4 during mid-week games in which weekend starters Kurt Heyer, Konner Wade and James Farris aren’t sent out to the mound.

The bullpen has been an issue all year, but the three weekend starters have been able to eat up innings, tossing 171 of the 284 innings pitched.

Arizona still has 18 conference games left on its schedule, so anything can happen.

But with how the Wildcats have played so far, they have proven themselves worthy of the high ranking and lone spot atop the competitive Pac-12 standings.

“I’m very happy with this group, they compete well and they do a good job when they have to,” Lopez said. “There are a lot of teams that would have liked to have won every conference weekend and so far and we happen to be one of those.”

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