The Arizona Wildcats lost a head-spinner and then a heartbreaker to the Washington Huskies over the weekend at Hi Corbett Field. The series defeat likely moved the UA to the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble.
There are nine games left and the Cats will have to win most of them to get a shot at defending their national title.
Friday night was one of those once-in-decade games where absolutely nothing goes right. It was like a Little League contest where your two best pitchers are on a fishing trip and another kid comes down with pink eye. You stand in the outfield watching run after run cross the plate and you know you’re not getting any ice cream.
Sunday was a solid win for the home team so that leaves game two as the deciding factor. Arizona got great pitching Saturday night from James Farris and Mathew Troupe but Washington’s combo of Austin Voth and Trevor Dunlap was one run better. And now the Wildcats’ NCAA tournament hopes have something far worse than pink eye.
Things change that much over a single loss? One run is all that separates “staying the course” from “where’s the panic button?” It sounds harsh but that’s the reality for a young team carrying the title of Defending National Champions.
To make matters worse, Stanford took two of three from top-15 Arizona State, allowing the Cardinal to leapfrog Arizona in the RPI. Add in Stanford’s head-to-head series win and the Pac-12 pecking order is clear. If the selection committee draws the line at five Pac teams (the number that got in last year), the UA is the odd team out.
The bad news is the Wildcats now play six straight road games against quality opponents. The good news is winning those games would do wonders to the UA’s tournament profile.
With the number of automatic bids the general thinking is you need an RPI in the mid 40s to have a realistic shot at an at-large bid. Can the Cats still get there? According to Boyd’s World, home of one of the great college baseball math guys, Arizona needs to go 7-2 in its final nine games to get back in the RPI top 45.
The easiest path is to take two of three at both UCLA and ASU and then sweep USC in Tucson. I suppose that “easiest” should be in quotes because winning the final three series will be all kinds of of difficult.
That’s what happens when you pick a terrible time for your worst weekend of the season. Getting swept by Oregon State and Oregon is forgivable because both those teams could be national seeds. Dropping two at Stanford isn’t the end of the world either. But losing a home series to a Washington team creeping up on 30 losses just can’t happen, especially when you were already considered by some to be the last team in the NCAA tournament field.
So the Cats need to go from staggering to streaking right this second. What has to happen to make it happen? It sounds simple but the experienced players need to lead the way. On the mound that’s Farris, Troupe and Konner Wade. At the plate it’s Johnny Field, Trent Gilbert, Brandon Dixon and Riley Moore.
Field was red hot coming into the Washington series but the Huskies held him to one hit in 11 at-bats. Gilbert was also 1-for-11 in the series. With nobody in the bottom half of the lineup slugging above .400 it’s going to be up to the top half to string hits together and generate runs.
On the pitching front, what’s scary is Andy Lopez is so concerned about Wade’s struggles that he’s shuffling his starting rotation this late in the season. One of the keys to 2012’s success was the Cats were able to use the exact same weekend rotation the entire year. For all 15 weeks of the regular season it was Kurt Heyer, followed by Wade and Farris.
This year it took half the season to get Tyler Crawford fitted into the Sunday slot and now Lopez is trying to pull a new ace from the deck.
So playoff baseball starts early for the Cats. This week feels like a regional in that the UA can only afford one loss. Find a way to take two of three from the Bruins and go from there.
The pressure of the postseason brought out the best in last year’s team. We’ll soon found out if the same can be said about this group of Wildcats.
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