Looking ahead to the postseason doesn’t jibe with Arizona baseball coach Jay Johnson’s one-game-at-a-time mantra — especially with more than a month’s worth of games yet to be played.
But the two can work together. In Johnson’s program, every game matters. Each one is a “Super Bowl.” Or as he put it earlier this week: “It’s a playoff game every game from this point forward.”
That’s the mindset Arizona takes into this weekend’s series at Cal. Friday’s opener marks the start of the second half of the Pac-12 season. The Wildcats have exceeded expectations thus far — at least those created by the preseason coaches’ poll — but have considerable work to do to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.
Picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12 by the league’s coaches, Arizona currently sits in seventh with a conference record of 7-8. The Wildcats are 23-14 overall.
To show how unpredictable — and weird — sports can be, the coaches pegged Utah to finish last. The Utes are in first place in the conference at 8-4 — but have a 13-20 overall record.
Arizona’s RPI as of Thursday was 54, per NCAA.com. Two other websites that calculate RPIs, BoydsWorld.com and WarrenNolan.com, had the UA at 50 and 52, respectively. So the Wildcats are on track to qualify for the 64-team NCAA field. They just aren’t there yet, and they know it.
Asked where Arizona needs to improve to make the second half better than the first — a necessity to finish with the .500-or-better league record that likely will be required to make the postseason — Johnson said: “All of it. The whole thing.”
That’s something of an exaggeration. But it’s also a reflection of the inconsistency that continues to plague the Wildcats within series and even games. Take Wednesday night, for example. Arizona’s usually reliable defense committed three errors in the first two innings, leading to three unearned runs and a 3-0 deficit against visiting New Mexico State.
“Honestly, I don’t think we were ready to play defensively,” second baseman JJ Matijevic said. “That’s our issue sometimes. We don’t come out ready to play. That needs to be fixed, and it will be fixed.”
Shaky starts plagued Arizona before last weekend’s series victory over Stanford; the Wildcats fell behind in the first inning in three of the previous four games and lost two of them.
But the end of games has been a bigger problem, especially since Johnson shifted Bobby Dalbec, Arizona’s leader in saves, to the starting rotation. Dalbec (7-3) leads the Wildcats in wins.
Arizona surrendered late leads in all three games of a weekend sweep at Utah earlier this month. It happened again Sunday against Stanford, preventing the Wildcats from sweeping the Cardinal.
“That’s frustrating,” Matijevic said. “You can’t do that as a team. You’ve got to fight. We lost the fight in those late innings.
“Other than that, I feel like our team’s doing pretty well right now.”
There’s a lot to like. Arizona has gone 6-3 since the Utah series. The Wildcats rank in the top three in the Pac-12 in batting average, on-base percentage, runs, hits, walks and stolen bases. Friday starter Nathan Bannister ranks in the top 10 in wins, strikeouts, innings pitched and opponents’ batting average.
More than anything, Johnson likes the way his team has competed.
“We’re in a war every single game,” he said.
Arizona rallied to beat New Mexico State, scoring three runs in the seventh and eighth innings to overcome a 7-5 deficit. The Wildcats are treating every game as if it matters because, in the quest to end their postseason drought, they all do.
“We don’t talk about it a ton,” Johnson said. “But I gave them the analogy – I want to be there worse than I want to breathe. So our day-to-day deal, what we do, is really important.”
- After a midseason slump, Matijevic has six hits in his past nine at-bats. The sophomore went 3 for 5 Wednesday, including a home run in the seventh inning over the 405-foot marker in right-center and the game-winning RBI single in the eighth. “Slumps happen,” Matijevic said. “I stuck through it. I stayed positive.”
- Freshman Alfonso Rivas III pitched 12/3 scoreless innings to pick up his first career victory against the Aggies. Johnson called Rivas “the guy I trusted the most” to finish the game. Rivas began the night as the designated hitter. He has started at designated hitter 12 times and in left field 11 times. He’s batting .303 with 18 RBIs.
- Cal (22-11, 9-6) is 13-3 at home, including sweeps of Oregon State and UCLA. The Golden Bears are second in the Pac-12 in home runs (28) and are tied with USC for the lead in total bases (502). They’re second in ERA (3.20) .
- Cal sophomore catcher Brett Cumberland leads the Pac-12 in batting average (.400), home runs (11), RBIs (35), on-base percentage (.518) and slugging percentage (.764).