Johnny Field

Johnny Field and the Wildcats are eyeing a return to the postseason.
Photo by Andy Morales

The calendar is about to flip to May, which means the Arizona baseball team is about to hit the home stretch of the 2013 season.

The goal is to get the engine firing on all cylinders, get hot and make a run at defending last year’s national championship.

That is, if the Cats make it into the NCAA tournament at all.

Wait…what?! you say. How would the defending champs not get into the tournament? No, they’re not leading the Pac-12 like last year, but the Cats still have 28 wins and counting!

It’s true that if you just look at the standings everything looks fine:

School Pac-12 W Pac-12 L Overall W Overall L %
Oregon St. 14 4 34 8 0.810
Oregon 16 5 33 10 0.767
Arizona St. 11 7 28 12 0.700
UCLA 11 7 27 13 0.675
ARIZONA 9 9 28 14 0.667
Stanford 9 9 23 15 0.605
Wash. St. 7 11 20 20 0.500
Cal 9 12 20 23 0.465
Wash. 6 12 14 28 0.333
USC 8 13 8 13 0.381
Utah 5 16 16 23 0.410

(Based on Pac-12 loss column)

You can eliminate anyone without a winning overall record so that leaves six Pac-12 teams with a win percentage north of .600. Five Pac teams got into the tournament last year, six the year before that and a conference-record eight in 2010.

The problem comes when you rank those six teams by RPI:

School RPI
Oregon 9
ASU 20
Stanford 82

That’s a big drop between teams four and five. What’s the deal? Why is ASU’s 28-12 so much better than Arizona’s 28-14?

It’s the same thing that had UA fans giggling at Herb Sendek’s three Sun Devil hoops squads that won 20 games only to play in the NIT: strength of schedule.

Arizona’s non-league slate consisted of more teams with RPIs worse than 200 (Coppin State, San Jose State, Alabama State) than schools with an RPI better than 100 (San Francisco at 91).

ASU has six wins over top-100 teams and that’s not including a combined 5-4 record against Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA.

But 28 wins are still 28 wins, right? Not anymore.

The NCAA changed its baseball RPI formula before this season and Arizona took a hit. The old RPI was blind to location so there was zero incentive for warm weather schools to play road games. The UA took full advantage, playing 75% of its out-of-conference games at home in 2011 and 80% at Hi Corbett Field last year.

That percentage actually got even higher this year with 88% of the Wildcats’ non-league games in Tucson, even though the new RPI formula makes a home win almost half as valuable as a road victory.

So instead of being in the running to host a regional, this year’s UA team is just trying to make a regional.

It’s far too soon to write Arizona off, however, because you don’t have to go back very far – or leave this conference – to find proof that anything can happen if you get into the tournament. Oregon State won the 2006 College World Series, lost nine players to the draft and slumped to sixth place in the Pac-10 in 2007. The Beavers barely made the tournament, got shipped off to Virginia, rediscovered the magic and went 11-1 in the postseason to win their second straight national title.

At the end of the day, I believe the Cats will get an at-large bid next month. We’re not dealing with BCS computers here; it’s a human selection committee under a much more forgiving microscope than their basketball counterparts. Even if Arizona’s RPI stays where it is, I expect the defending champs to get the benefit of the doubt. It’s good for the tournament and good for the sport to have a name-brand team with some 2012 CWS heroes playing in a regional somewhere with a big bullseye on their chests.

That said, Arizona certainly shouldn’t play like its invitation is already in the mail, which brings us to this Tuesday’s game. ASU makes its second and final visit to Hi Corbett in 2013 at 6 p.m. on Apr. 30. The Wildcats’ comeback two weeks ago remains the UA’s best win of the season (by far) and a second victory over the top-20 Devils would be a nice resume booster.

The Cats have 13 games left in ’13. Thirteen games to decide if they’re going to get to put on the bullseye and go hunting for that magic.

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Scott Terrell sees no reason for the season to end in May. Get game updates on Twitter and previews and commentary on Facebook.