The Arizona baseball team is in a familiar position entering Pac-12 play.
A year ago, the Wildcats posted a 15-4 pre-conference record. Heading into Friday’s league opener at Washington, this year’s Cats are 12-4.
The 2015 squad started Pac-12 play promisingly. After dropping 2 of 3 against Utah, Arizona swept Stanford and Oregon.
Then the Wildcats fell apart.
Arizona lost 11 of its next 13 games en route to a 12-18 conference record.
The UA finished 31-24 overall but didn’t qualify for the postseason.
Why might things be different this time? For starters, Arizona has a new coach in Jay Johnson, who has instilled a new day-to-day, moment-to-moment mentality. Every game is viewed as the Super Bowl. Game 1 of the Washington series is “Super Bowl 17.”
“We don’t look too far ahead, and we haven’t looked back, whether it’s good or bad,” said Johnson, whose team is in the midst of a seven-game winning streak. “We’ve really done a nice job of staying in the moment, focusing on the task at hand.”
An example: Third baseman Bobby Dalbec was chatting with his dad before Arizona played New Mexico State on Tuesday.
Pops wanted to talk about a game from last season. Dalbec wasn’t interested.
“I was like, ‘I don’t really want to talk about that. I’ve got a game tonight against New Mexico State,’” Dalbec said. “I think everyone’s mindset is the same. That’s how we do it.”
The Wildcats didn’t follow that formula last year, and it cost them dearly.
After that hot start to conference play “we felt like we were on top,” Dalbec said, “and we were kind of living off that.”
Or dying by it, as it turned out.
In addition to Arizona’s new mental approach, here are several reasons the Wildcats’ winning ways could be more sustainable in 2016:
- Arizona’s potent offense — which ranks in the top three in the Pac-12 in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, hits and runs scored — isn’t overly reliant on a handful of players.
- Seven players who have started at least half of the Wildcats’ 16 games are batting .308 or higher.
- Arizona is proving it can win in a variety of ways.
- The Wildcats have won 10 of their past 12 games. The first victory came by a score of 11-10, the last 11-8. In between, Arizona won by scores of 2-0, 4-1 (twice) and 3-1.
- Arizona is getting great pitching from its top two starters and the back of its bullpen.
- Senior Nathan Bannister and junior JC Cloney have combined for a 5-0 record and a 2.31 ERA, walking just seven batters in 58ª innings. Dalbec, who doubles as the team’s closer, has a 0.55 ERA and five saves, allowing only eight hits in 16ª innings.
- Arizona is playing stellar defense.
- Through Wednesday, the Wildcats were tied for fifth in the nation in fielding percentage (.985). Arizona has committed only nine errors. Washington State and Utah, who have the worst records in the Pac-12, are tied for the most errors with 23 apiece.