Two weeks ago the University of Arizona baseball team was on top of the world. After a shockingly impressive sweep against then-No. 2 Stanford, all was well in the Wildcat Universe.
But the Cats struggled to get by last-place Utah last week and then suffered their first weekend series defeat at Hi Corbett Field. Is it time to panic?
UCLA came to town and everything went according to Andy Lopez’s plan Friday night. Junior starting pitcher Kurt Heyer was great, junior Joey Rickard got a clutch hit off the Bruins’ stout bullpen and the UA won game one for the third consecutive week.
After that there wasn’t much drama in the series and that spelled trouble for the home team. The Pac-12’s best offense was held to five runs over the final two games while UCLA took care of business early on Saturday and in the middle innings on Sunday to eliminate the possibility of late-inning heroics.
The Wildcats have looked mortal the last two weeks and Stanford is now just the 7th-place team in the conference. Is there cause for concern among the Arizona faithful?
The first thing to do is take another look at the Pac-12 standings. Midway through the 30-game conference season the UA is in 1st place. Yes, it’s a three-way tie but it’s hard to complain about controlling your own destiny for a Pac-12 championship with 15 games to go.
Then you break down what each contender has done so far and what remains:
Read horizontally to see how the top four teams have done against the rest of the conference.
Arizona State has to be included among the contenders after winning six straight conference games. The Sun Devils were left for dead after going a combined 1-5 against UCLA and Oregon (some silly person even suggested they may be running out of motivation) but two straight conference sweeps and ASU is just a game behind the co-co-leaders.
The benchmark for contending has always been to average a series win every weekend. In other words, a .667 winning percentage. Over the past five seasons that record got you no worse than three games out of first and it was good enough for the outright championship twice (including UCLA last year).
All four contenders lost a Pac-12 series in the first half the season (ASU lost two). Everyone made up for it by sweeping a series (ASU has two sweeps).
UCLA has the best remaining schedule as the Bruins have already played the other three contenders (going 5-4). Arizona has the toughest remaining schedule with Oregon and ASU still looming.
If you use head-to-head results among the contenders to try and gauge strength it looks like this:
Oregon looks like the team to beat. After losing to the opening series to Washington (needing 13 innings to avoid a sweep) and playing three close games against Utah, the Ducks have been extremely impressive the last three weeks. They play their next two weekends at home and stand a good chance of leading the Pac alone when they come to Tucson on May 4.
The good news about Arizona’s tough road is the Wildcats have their targets in front of them. The conference title is going to be determined by what happens the rest of the way, not by what has taken place so far.
Tied for 1st place midway through the season. The last two weeks don’t change that reality. If the BatCats can look beyond their recent struggles they’ll see a whole lot of opportunity.
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