It’s pretty simple, really.
“We’ve just gotta pitch better,” Jay Johnson said Wednesday, summing up the state of his Arizona Wildcats.
Arizona did not pitch well — at all — at Cal last week. The Wildcats must pitch better to take what amounts to a must-win series against Arizona State this week. The pitchers are well aware of what’s at stake and what they have to do.
“There’s always something you can get out of failure. Obviously, there was a lot of failure this last weekend,” said junior right-hander Michael Flynn, who is scheduled to start Game 2 against ASU on Friday night. “It’s just another opportunity to bounce back and show what we’re capable of. We’ve got our eyes set on the target, and we’re going to go for it.”
Arizona put itself in the all-too-familiar position of having to rebound by following its best weekend of 2018 with its worst. Statistically, it might have been the worst series of the Johnson era.
The Wildcats have been swept eight times in Johnson’s two-plus seasons (including this year’s Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge in Minneapolis). They allowed 37 runs against the Golden Bears — 14 more than in any of the other seven series. Arizona’s minus-17 run differential also was its largest.
The Wildcats scored 20 runs in Berkeley. Normally, that would be enough to win a series, or at least a game.
Given that Arizona’s season ERA is 3.83 even after those performances, the Cal series looks like an anomaly.
“I certainly hope so,” pitching coach Dave Lawn said. “We’ve been pretty solid for most weekends. Pitching in this league is tough. It’s almost been an every-other-week thing.”
The Cal series came on the heels of the UCLA series, in which Arizona allowed a total of four runs. The Wildcats swept the Bruins, highlighting a season-long six-game winning streak — which followed a season-long five-game skid.
Such is life in the Pac-12, where only one school — Arizona — has made the NCAA Tournament each of the past two seasons.
“It’s really not that much of a surprise,” Johnson said. “You’re going to throw punches. You’re going to get punched. You’re going to get knocked down. It’s hard to win games.
“We’re always going to revert back to, what do we have to do to play better? We’re capable of it. We’ve just gotta execute it.”
Execution, or lack thereof, from the mound killed the Wildcats the last time they got swept — April 20-22 against Stanford. UA pitchers repeatedly got ahead of Stanford hitters but couldn’t put them away.
The Bears hit four home runs against the Wildcats. Each time, the UA pitcher was even or ahead. The counts were 0-0, 0-1, 0-2 and 2-2.
The other big issue was failing to sustain momentum created by the offense. In Saturday’s 16-6 loss, Arizona took a 4-0 lead in the top of the third — then surrendered five runs in the bottom half. The Wildcats regained the lead with two runs in the top of the sixth before promptly giving up four.
In Sunday’s 12-11 defeat, Arizona trailed 6-0 entering the sixth inning. The Wildcats scored three runs in the top half to give themselves a chance. The Bears responded with six runs in the bottom half.
Arizona scored four runs apiece in the eighth and ninth but came up one run short.
“The pitcher has to go out there and get the offense back in the dugout as quickly as possible,” said Flynn, who was on the wrong end of Cal’s five-run fifth in Game 2. “That’s kind of the whole goal. If you don’t do that, it can kill the mood and you have to restart. Shutdown innings are extremely important.”
Returning home provides hope. Arizona has a 3.00 ERA at Hi Corbett Field, where its record is 21-5. The Wildcats’ ERA in all other games is 4.76. Their record in those contests: 9-15.
At 10-14 in the Pac-12, the Cats likely need to win five of their final six games to make the NCAA Tournament for a third straight time. Arizona visits Oregon May 24-26 to close the regular season.
“It’s hard to block it out,” junior catcher Cesar Salazar said, referring to the Wildcats’ predicament. “We obviously want to make the tournament. Our culture here is take it one pitch at a time.
“We know the situation. It is what it is. We’re going to try not to think about that.”
- Salazar was named one of 16 semifinalists for the Johnny Bench Award, given to the nation’s top catcher. Salazar is batting .339 and has thrown out 12 of 23 would-be base stealers.
- Arizona swept ASU in Phoenix last year and has won four straight against the Sun Devils. That includes a 6-2 nonconference victory March 13.
- ASU (21-28, 11-13) is guaranteed to finish under .500 for the second straight year. However, Johnson said Spencer Torkelson (22 home runs) and Gage Canning (.392) are on par with Cal’s 1-2 punch of Andrew Vaughn and Jonah Davis. “It’s a very deep lineup,” said Johnson, who also noted the Sun Devils’ youth. “They’re fighting some of the same things we are. It’s a very capable team.”
- UA middle infielders Jacob Blas and Cameron Cannon were two of the bright spots over the weekend. Blas, back from a knee injury, hit safely in all four games against Cal and Sacramento State, going 8 for 16 with four runs and three RBIs. Cannon went 4 for 9 in the final two games of the trip, including a home run. He scored four runs and drove in three.
- UA junior right-hander Cody Deason (5-5, 2.64 ERA) will start Friday, followed by Flynn (6-3, 4.50). Saturday’s starter is TBA. Sophomore righty Alec Marsh (3-3, 3.63) is scheduled to start the opener for ASU, which isn’t listing a Friday starter. Senior lefty Eli Lingos (7-5, 3.61) is set to pitch Saturday.
- UA sophomore lefty Randy Labaut worked out in the outfield after practice Wednesday. Labaut was ruled out for the season after undergoing emergency surgery for compartment syndrome in his left leg March 18.