Pac-12 baseball season kicks off this week

By the Pac-12 Conference

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The Pac-12 reaffirmed its prominence in collegiate baseball in 2012, sending five teams to the NCAA Tournament. Two teams secured places in the College World Series, and Arizona won 10 straight postseason tilts to claim the Conference's 27th NCAA baseball title. All five of last year's tournament teams are ranked in Baseball America's preseason poll: Oregon State (6), Stanford (9), UCLA (12), Oregon (15) and Arizona (24). Arizona State also earned preseason praise in a number of polls. All 11 teams kick off the 2013 campaign on Friday with a packed opening weekend that includes non-conference contests against a pair of ranked opponents. The ninth-ranked Cardinal travels to Houston to take on No. 18 Rice in a three-game set, while USC opens the season with a pair of games at No. 22 Cal State Fullerton. The Pac-12 Networks will televise 30 Conference baseball games this season, kicking off its coverage on March 10 with a traditional rivalry matchup between USC and UCLA.

UPCOMING SCHEDULE

Friday, February 15
No. 6/10 OREGON STATE vs. Utah Valley....2 p.m. MT
Palm Springs Tournament (Palm Springs, Calif.)
WASHINGTON STATE at Western Carolina....4 p.m. ET
Michigan at CALIFORNIA....1:30 p.m. PT
UTAH at Loyola Marymount....2 p.m. PT
WASHINGTON at UC Davis....2 p.m. PT
No. 9/9 STANFORD at No. 18/20 Rice....4:30 p.m. CT
No. 15/6 OREGON at Hawai'i....6:35 p.m. HT
Coppin State at No. 24/18 ARIZONA....6 p.m. MT
Bethune Cookman at No. -/16 ARIZONA STATE....6:30 p.m. MT
Minnesota at No. 12/5 UCLA....6 p.m. PT
USC at No. 22/23 Cal State Fullerton....6 p.m. PT

Saturday, February 16
WASHINGTON at UC Davis....11 a.m. PT
WASHINGTON STATE at Western Carolina....2 p.m. ET
Bethune Cookman at No. -/16 ARIZONA STATE....1 p.m. MT
No. 9/9 STANFORD at No. 18/20 Rice....2 p.m. CT
UTAH at Loyola Marymount....12 p.m. PT
No. 6/10 OREGON STATE vs. Gonzaga....12:30 p.m. PT
Palm Springs Tournament (Palm Springs, Calif.)
Coppin State at No. 24/18 ARIZONA....2 p.m. MT
Michigan at CALIFORNIA....1 p.m. PT
Minnesota at No. 12/5 UCLA....2 p.m. PT
USC at No. 22/23 Cal State Bakersfield....2 p.m. PT
WASHINGTON at UC Davis....2:30 p.m. PT
No. 15/6 OREGON at Hawai'i....6:35 p.m. HT

Sunday, February 17
WASHINGTON STATE at Western Carolina....12 p.m. ET
Coppin State at No. 24/18 ARIZONA....12 p.m. MT
No. 9/9 STANFORD at No. 18/20 Rice....1 p.m. CT
No. 15/6 OREGON at Hawai'i....1:05 p.m. HT
Bethune Cookman at No. -/16 ARIZONA STATE....12:30 p.m. MT
Michigan at CALIFORNIA....1 p.m. PT
No. 6/10 OREGON STATE vs. UC Riverside....1 p.m. PT
Palm Springs Tournament (Palm Springs, Calif.)
Minnesota at No. 12/5 UCLA....1 p.m. PT
Nebraska at USC....1 p.m. PT
UTAH at Loyola Marymount....1 p.m. PT
WASHINGTON at UC Davis....1 p.m. PT

Monday, February 18
No. 6/10 OREGON STATE vs. UC Riverside....8:30 a.m. PT
Palm Springs Tournament (Palm Springs, Calif.)
No. 15/6 OREGON AT Hawai'i....1:05 p.m. HT

Games are local to site and subject to change.
Rankings are from Baseball America/Collegiate Baseball.

PAC-12 BASEBALL NOTES

Arizona (48-17, 20-10) closed out the 2012 campaign on a tear, winning 18 of its final 20 games—including all 10 in postseason play— to secure the program's fourth national title. While the Wildcats suffered some key losses from last year's championship squad, they return plenty of pieces that make them a serious threat to contend for the Pac-12 crown again in 2013. Junior OF Johnny Field, the reigning Conference batting champion (.370), will make the shift from leftfield to centerfield this season. Field, who also led the league in runs scored (72), on-base percentage (.476) and walks drawn (43), will be counted on once again to provide an offensive spark. Arizona's pitching staff will look to a new ace after the departure of Kurt Heyer. Junior RHP Konner Wade went 11-3 with a 3.96 ERA, 105 strikeouts and six complete games in 2012. The 2013 Louisville Slugger Preseason All-American was instrumental in UA's championship run, going 4-0 with a 1.29 ERA in the NCAA Tournament and pitching back-to-back complete games in the CWS.

Arizona State (36-20, 18-12) finished the 2012 season in a three-way tie for fourth-place in the Pac-12 but was ineligible for postseason play. It's a new season, and the Sun Devils are poised to return to an NCAA Tournament field they've been a part of in13 of the last 14 seasons. Veteran RHP Trevor Williams headlines the Sun Devils' pitching staff. Williams, a first team All-Pac-12 performer in 2012, posted a 12-2 record and finished the season with a conference-low 2.05 ERA among qualified starting pitchers. He struck out 59 batters and walked 13, earning second team All-America honors from Collegiate Baseball Newspaper and the NCBWA a season ago. Matthew Dunbar, who led the team with a 1.54 ERA in 2012, also figures to be in the mix. ASU returns two of its most efficient hitters from 2012. Senior C Max Rossiter, who earned Pac-12 honorable mention in 2012, finished second on the team with a .326 batting average, while junior IF Michael Benjamin finished third, batting .322.

Two years removed from a remarkable College World Series run, California (29-25, 12-18) looks to bounce back after a 29-25 encore performance in 2012 in which it fell short of a postseason berth. Junior C Andrew Knapp, tabbed a first-team Preseason All-American by Baseball America, hit .265 with 16 doubles, five home runs and 26 RBI while managing 13 multiple-hit games as a sophomore in 2012. The Bears will look to a pair of established weekend starters, senior LHP Justin Jones and junior LHP Michael Theofanopoulos, for production at the front end of the rotation. Jones, who threw a two-hit, complete-game shutout against Washington State last May, has won 23 decisions in three seasons a Cal, a figure that is tied for fifth on the school's all-time list. Theofanopoulos went 3-5 and collected 46 strikeouts in 14 starts in his first season on the mound.

Oregon (46-19, 19-11) returns three of its top bats—and five 50-game starters— from a squad that finished a single game out of first-place in the Pac-12 last season. Junior 2B Aaron Payne started all 65 games for the Ducks in 2012 and led the team in on-base percentage (.405), runs scored (42) and stolen bases (16). He drove in 27 runs and drew a Conference-high 25 hit-by-pitches. Junior OF Brett Thomas, a 53-game starter, led UO in batting average (.313) and doubles (14) and registered 18 multiple-hit games. Junior INF Ryon Healy, another 65-game starter, hit .312 last season, recording team highs in RBI (42), hits (79), multiple-hit games (23) and multiple-RBI games (10). Oregon boasts one of the most dominant bullpens in the country, anchored by sophomore LHP Thomas Thorpe and junior RHP Jimmie Sherfy. Thorpe appeared in a freshman-record 35 games in 2012, posting a .211 ERA and tossing 48 strikeouts. Sherfy, the Pac-12 leader in saves (19) in 2012, struck out 93 batters in 61.1 innings, earning a first team all-conference nod and numerous All-America accolades.

Oregon State (40-20, 18-12) capped an impressive 2012 campaign with an NCAA regional berth. The Beavers, who are ranked in the top 10 in numerous national preseason polls, are among the preseason favorites to win the Pac-12 title in 2013. The Pac-12 coaches picked them to finish third in the Conference in their annual poll. OSU welcomes back reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, Michael Conforto, who led the league in home runs (13), RBI (76) and slugging percentage (.601) a season ago. A preseason All-American, Conforto is Baseball America's preseason pick to be the Pac-12 Player of the Year. Junior LHP Ben Wetzler and junior RHP Dan Child, each of whom earned Pac-12 honorable mention in 2012, highlight the Beavers' pitching staff. Wetzler, a Louisville Slugger Preseason All-American, went 8-2 in 16 starts with a 3.10 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 2012, while Child went 6-4 with a 2.95 ERA in 17 games (16 starts). Senior RHP Tony Bryant, who was named to the Stopper of the Year watch list last week, provides stability out of the bullpen. Bryant tied for fourth in the Pac-12 with nine saves in 2012.

Stanford (41-18, 18-12) finished the 2012 campaign with a 41-18 record and advanced to NCAA Super Regional play in the postseason. The Cardinal, led by preseason All-Americans Mark Appel, Brian Ragira and Austin Wilson, enters the season as a consensus top-10 team in the national rankings and has been selected by the Pac-12 coaches as the preseason favorite to win the conference title in 2013. Appel, a first team All-Pac-12 performer in 2012, went 10-2 with a 2.56 ERA with 130 strikeouts and 30 walks. He pitched at least seven innings in 14 of 16 starts and tossed five complete games, garnering All-America accolades from Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball, the American Baseball Coaches Association and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. The preseason All-American, who was selected with the eighth pick in the 2012 MLB First-Year Player Draft, is Baseball America's preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year award. Ragira earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention after a season in which he led the Cardinal in batting average (3.29) and produced a team-high 22 multi-hit games. Wilson ranked fifth in the Pac-12 in home runs (15) and sixth in runs scored (56) and RBI (54) last season. He also logged a team-high 15 multi-RBI games.

UCLA (48-16, 20-10) won a share of the Pac-12 championship in 2012 and advanced to the College World Series for the fourth time in program history. The Bruins, who figure to be in the thick of the Conference title hunt again this season, were tabbed to finish second by the league coaches. They enter the season ranked fifth in the NCBWA coaches poll, the highest ranking by any Pac-12 team in the poll. UCLA is led by preseason All-Americans David Berg and Adam Plutko, who highlight one of the league's top pitching staffs. Berg established a Pac-12 record for single-season appearances (50) and led the Conference with a 1.65 opponent batting average and a 1.46 ERA in 2012, garnering first-team All-Pac-12 accolades and a pair of freshman All-America honors from Collegiate Baseball and the NCBWA. Plutko, a two-time all-conference honoree, went 12-3 with a 2.48 ERA with 99 strikeouts and 47 walks in 2012. He was a third-team Baseball America All-American. Offensively, the Bruins are paced by sophomore C Shane Zeile, who saw action in 33 games—batting an impressive .371 with a .480 on-base percentage—as a utility infielder in 2012.

USC (23-32, 8-22) looks to improve on its 8-22 mark in Conference play last season, and winning on the road will be an area of emphasis. The Trojans, who went 6-18 in road tilts in 2012, open the season with road games at Cal State Fullerton and CSU Bakersfield. Offensively, they will look for production from senior IF Adam Landecker, who started 39 games as a junior in 2012 and batted a team-best .329. Redshirt senior Greg Zebrack transferred back into the program after spending the last three seasons at Penn and should boost the Trojans' lineup. Zebrack, a first-team All-Ivy League performer in 2011 and 2012, hit .343 for the Quakers last season and led the team in on-base percentage (.448), slugging percentage (.657), RBI (28), runs (34), stolen bases (10), doubles (18) and home runs (7). USC lacks starting experience in its pitching rotation, but sophomores, RHP Wyatt Strahan and RHP Nigel Nootbaar, were solid contributors last season. Nootbaar made 10 appearances out of the bullpen and started four games for the Trojans in 2012, posting a 3.31 ERA and collecting 17 strikeouts, while Strahan made 22 appearances in relief, going 3-3 with a 1.37 ERA and 18 strikeouts.

Utah (14-42, 7-23) enters its second season in the Pac-12 without seven position starters from last year's squad. Anchoring the infield is two-year starting third baseman Trey Nielsen, who batted .235 with 17 doubles and 20 RBI in 2012 while registering 48 putouts and 85 assists. Senior Tyler Relf, who has started 95 career games for the Utes, is the veteran among the outfielders. Utah's pitching staff returns plenty of experience, however, as two of its opening weekend starters—senior RHPs Brock Duke and Joe Pond—have combined for 53 career starts. Junior LHP Tanner Banks, a transfer from Salt Lake Community College also earned a spot in the opening weekend rotation. He was a second team all-conference performer at SLCC in 2011 after a season in which he went 5-0 with a 2.25 ERA, allowing just one home run and six total extra base hits and striking out 40 batters in 44 innings of work. Sophomore reliever Mitch Watrous was solid working out of the pen last season and has seven starts under his belt. Watrous posted a 3.48 ERA—second lowest on the team— and struck out 32 batters in 2012.

Last season, Washington (30-25, 13-17) earned its highest conference finish since 2008, finishing seventh in a league that saw five teams claim postseason berths. The Huskies will field a deep and experienced lineup, with steady competition across the diamond. Sophomore 1B Trevor Mitsui, who started 36 games as a true freshman last season, figures to be a force in the middle of the order—he hit .308 with six doubles and 14 RBI in 2012, while sophomore 2B Robert Pehl, a 50-game starter for the Huskies last season, will be counted on for production out of the three-hole. Pehl hit .293 with 23 RBI last season, and in the Cape Cod League over the summer, he batted.329 with six home runs and 38 RBI. Juniors Austin Voth and Nick Palewicz and sophomore Tyler Davis figure to fill out the Huskies weekend rotation. Voth, who has logged 24 career starts, is the most experienced of the group. He started 11 games and made 11 relief appearances in 2012, earning a team-high seven wins and limiting opponents to a .227 batting average (eighth-lowest in the Pac-12). Tyler Davis pitched in 19 games with 11 starts in 2012, becoming a regular starter midseason. He notched the fifth-lowest opponent batting average in the Conference (.217). Palewiicz was used in relief last season, making 25 appearances out of the bullpen.

Washington State (28-28, 12-18) enters the season with a young but experienced pitching staff, as it returns its top six hurlers from 2012. The Cougars' projected weekend starters are a trio of sophomores who, as freshman, made a combined 57 appearances (26 starts) and posted a winning record as a unit (10-9). Sophomore LHP Joe Pistorese went 4-3 with a team-best 2.44 ERA in 15 appearances (12 starts) in 2012 and pitched a seven-inning shutout against Seattle in April. Sophomore RHP Tanner Chleborad posted a 4-3 record with a 4.24 ERA in 14 appearances (13 starts), while racking up 42 strikeouts in 74.1 innings. Sophomore RHP Scott Simon made 28 appearances last season, mostly out of the bullpen, going 2-3 with three saves and a 4.09 ERA. Junior OF Jason Monda, a 2013 Baseball America Preseason All-American, started 51 games for the Cougars in 2012, hitting .275 with 10 doubles, two triples, a home run and 18 RBI. He also managed 15 multi-hit games.

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