Nick Quintana is leading the Wildcats' late-season push. He's tied or set several career highs, including home runs (14), RBIs (72) and batting average (.346). UA has won seven straight.

Nick Quintana’s first season as an Arizona Wildcat concluded with an NCAA Tournament berth. He’d like his final season to end the same way, and he’s doing everything in his power to make it happen.

The junior third baseman is the hottest hitter for one of the hottest teams in America. Quintana is riding a 12-game hitting streak into Arizona’s three-game series at Washington State, where the Wildcats finish the regular season Thursday through Saturday.

No one hopes the campaign continues more than Quintana.

“It’d mean everything,” he said. “If this is my last season here, it would kind of put everything together. First year here, we were great. Last year it was all right. This year, we went through ups and downs. To get back there would be really special.”

Arizona enters the WSU series sitting squarely on the bubble. But the Wildcats are clicking at the right time, having won 10 of their past 11 and seven in a row. With a sweep of the last-place Cougars, the UA (29-24, 12-14 Pac-12) would have a real chance.

Baseball America projects the UA as one of the last four teams in, playing in Nashville as a No. 3 seed. In its latest projected field of 64, D1Baseball listed Arizona among its first five out. The Wildcats were one of the first four out when last year’s official field was revealed.

In a strange way, Quintana said, the team’s struggles earlier in the season helped him individually. He spent more time worrying about his teammates than himself. That wasn’t the case when he was a freshman in 2017.

“When I first got here … I beat myself up,” Quintana said. “Small things would eat away at me on the inside.”

Quintana says he’s in a much better “head space” now. Win or lose, success or failure, he takes the same approach to the ballpark each day. It has resulted in Quintana’s best, most consistent season.

He has tied his career high of 14 home runs, set last season. He leads the Pac-12 — which includes projected top-10 picks Adley Rutschman, Andrew Vaughn and Hunter Bishop — with a career-best 72 RBIs. Quintana’s batting average (.346), on-base percentage (.469) and slugging percentage (.630) are also personal bests. He’s hitting .404 with runners in scoring position.

“I just think his at-bats are totally under control,” UA coach Jay Johnson said. “He has great feel for what he’s looking for and is very committed to getting it. He doesn’t deviate before two strikes; therefore, he doesn’t get himself out. And then with two strikes, he’s so much more balanced.

“He’s on time to the fastball and can react to that mistake breaking ball up. He’s really opened his window of what he can hit hard.”

Quintana has 34 career home runs, tied for fourth most in UA history. In keeping with his new and improved mindset, he pays little attention to the numbers.

“I’m not really a big stat guy,” Quintana said. “When I start thinking about that stuff, I try to do too much.

“All those stats are great. It’s really cool. It’s kind of special. But when I go into a game and I’m just relaxed and doing what I’m capable of doing, that’s when I play (well).”

Even amid the most productive stretch of his career — Quintana has 26 RBIs during the hitting streak, just three shy of WSU’s season leader — he remains Arizona’s hardest-working hitter. When teammate Justin Wylie arrived at Hi Corbett Field at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Quintana was the only other position player in the clubhouse.

“He goes about his business like a big-leaguer for sure,” said Wylie, a fifth-year senior. “The attention to detail that he has and the quiet confidence that he brings to the field … you can tell that he thinks he’s the best player on the field, and he plays like it. I can’t wait to see where he ends up.”

Baseball America ranks Quintana as the No. 82 prospect in this year’s MLB draft. ESPN’s Keith Law ranks Quintana 85th. That would place him in the early third round.

Like his stats, the draft isn’t something Quintana is interested in thinking about or discussing.

“You never really know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” he said. “I just take it day by day. It keeps me focused. It helps me clear my head and be the best I can be.”

‘It’s working’

Arizona’s late-season turnaround coincided with Johnson’s idea to frame each weekend series as its own regional. By de-emphasizing their standing in relation to the real NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats felt less pressure.

“It was one of those weird things,” Quintana said. “Overnight, it just kind of felt like the atmosphere in the dugout and the clubhouse changed.”

If each preceding weekend was a regional, the WSU series represents a super regional. Except Arizona likely won’t advance if takes only two of three games, which has been the result of the past four series against the Cougars.

Although they likely have to sweep the series to make the postseason – and even then, it’s not guaranteed – the Wildcats don’t plan to change their approach.

“We just need to keep doing exactly what we’ve been doing,” Quintana said. “It’s working.”

Said Johnson: “We can control what we can control and win all the games, and we still don’t know if it’s good enough. So why make it about anything other than trying to play good?”

Inside pitch

  • Washington State fired fourth-year coach Marty Lees on Tuesday. Dan Spencer will serve as interim coach for the series against Arizona. Lees posted a 70-137-2 record (32-83-2 Pac-12) at WSU.
  • The Cougars are 11-39-1 this season and just 3-23-1 in conference play, but they’ve given several good teams all they could handle. WSU dropped a pair of one-run games at Arizona State in March and lost 4-3 in 16 innings at Oregon State in April.
  • UA catcher-first baseman Matthew Dyer remains out because of an injured left hand. Dyer has been sidelined since getting hit by a pitch May 4 against Oregon. Dyer might get a second MRI to determine if the damage is more severe than originally thought, Johnson said.
  • Junior infielder Cameron Cannon is No. 87 in Law’s recently released top-100 rankings for the June draft. UA signee Andrew Dalquist, a right-hander pitcher, is No. 45.
  • WSU ranks last or next to last in the conference in runs, home runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, ERA and fielding percentage. Arizona ranks 10th in ERA and last in fielding percentage. The Wildcats are first in runs, hits, doubles, triples, walks, average and OBP.

Reporter

Michael is an award-winning journalist who has been covering sports professionally since the early '90s. He started at the Star in 2015 after spending 15 years at The Orange County Register. Michael is a graduate of Northwestern University.