Oregon State at Arizona highlights opening weekend of conference play
The sheer depth and quality of Pac-12 baseball provides the conference slate, which opens this weekend, with plenty of intrigue. Look no further than last year's horse race, which ended in a tie between Arizona and UCLA - a conference co-title that segued neatly into the Wildcats' national championship run.
For Arizona, the (title) defense never rests. The Wildcats will be immediately tested by the Pac-12's hottest team to open league play. Oregon State brings a 16-1 record and 1.43 ERA, both league bests, to Tucson. Cue the fireworks.
The Wildcats' patented offensive barrage is humming along quite nicely again this year despite losing five starters from the 2012 squad. After sending a silly 46 batters to the plate in another 14-2 win over Butler Wednesday, Arizona has tallied 814 plate appearances throughout the season's first 20 games, an astounding 143 more than conference second-place California.
Oregon State's suffocating pitching faces a Wildcats' lineup designed to exhaust and break men on the mound. The duel certainly is intriguing, and that's before Oregon State's dangerous offense - a lethally patient attack anchored by super sophomore Michael Conforto - is factored into the equation. The Beavers trail only Arizona in conference run production, so a pair of titans collide to open Pac-12 play.
Related But Different Offensive Approaches
"Our coaches preach the importance of being tough outs at the plate, grinding each at-bat out," Arizona left fielder Johnny Field, the Pac-12's defending batting champion (.370), said regarding the formula behind his team's eye-opening offensive success. "Especially if there's a good starter on the mound, they emphasize that we work in pairs so that we see some pitches."
When discussing "pairs," Field is referring to coach Andy Lopez's philosophy of lineup teamwork. He explains that the Wildcats will often hound an opposing pitcher as a calculating duo: if the first batter of the pair only sees a couple of pitches, the second man makes it a point to compensate for that by stretching the subsequent plate appearance to make the opposing pitcher sweat.
"It's all about working the pitcher," Field says. The nuances of that philosophy have brought Arizona leads over the rest of the Pac-12 in hits, walks and total bases. Those results aren't idle once they reach base, either: the Wildcats have already stolen 46 bases on the year, 20 more than second-place Utah.
Oregon State counters with a related - albeit different - offensive approach. Under coach Pat Casey, the Beavers routinely lead the Pac-12 in walks, displaying patience that puts them in position for the power kill. Conforto blasted 13 home runs to go along with his 76 RBI as a freshman last year, and he's already jacked four long balls to fuel Oregon State's early hot streak.
"Seeing more pitches, we get more of a feel for a pitcher," he says. "There's a big philosophy behind it that comes from the coaching staff and sets us up to have success."
Arizona's own philosophy, meanwhile, preaches that similar patience be coupled with a different style of contact.
"It's about trying to smoke a ball hard on the ground so that it has a chance to get through the infield," Field says, pointing out that this approach is tailor-made for Hi Corbett Field, the Wildcats' home park. "It's a really dry field. Visiting teams that are used to playing on turf are not used to how quick and hard our infield plays."
Field adds that the Wildcats' grounder-oriented swing is also conducive to generating line drives against elevated pitches. That type of contact works at Hi Corbett, too. The former big league spring training facility (the movie Major League was filmed there) is massive, allowing liners room to settle into its spacious gaps. As a result, the Wildcats led the Pac-12 in doubles and triples last season, and they've pounded out 17 triples in only 20 games this year (second-place Arizona State is stuck at six).
It all translates into an intriguing matchup that may well have critical ramifications on the final Pac-12 standings, and it's also a chance for Oregon State - so successful in the preseason - to officially re-enter the ranks of the conference elite.
"[Arizona] beat us two out of three last year in our house," Conforto said. "Everyone wants to play against the best. We're excited to go in there and play against the defending national champions."
Another intriguing opening weekend matchup features Washington State and Arizona State, the Pac-12's two leading home run-hitting squads. The two have combined for 24 jacks on the young season. Washington looks to kick-start its season at UCLA, Oregon tries to awaken its bats at USC and Utah looks to bounce back after a long 2012 with an opening series win at home against Cal.
David Lombardi has covered Pac-12 baseball since 2007. He is Stanford baseball’s radio play-by-play voice and can be found on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.