No relaxing for Arizona as it prepares to host Utah

Brandon James, GOAZCATS.com Staff Writer
GOAZCATS.com

Halfway through conference play Arizona finds itself ranked No. 6 in the Baseball America Poll and No. 2 in the RPI rankings. After taking two of three games from Oregon last weekend, they are third in the Pac-12 with a 9-6 record and 26-9 overall.

Since being swept by Oregon State, Arizona has won 10 of its last 12 games, including a sweep over USC, series victories over Washington State and Oregon and a win over rival ASU.

Starting to hit the home stretch of the season, Jay Johnson has stood firm to his "every game is the super bowl approach."

There's no thought of potentially hosting the regionals and super regionals in the tournament a month from now, or making up for their heartbreaking loss to Coastal Carolina in the College World Series Final last year. Getting a win Thursday night against the Utah Utes is the focus.

“Twenty one games in baseball is an eternity," Johnson said. "What we talk about is taking advantage of each opportunity as it comes, and if you take advantage of enough opportunities you create more for yourself. This team has been mature in its approach to each weekend that comes along, and I know they value having a chance to do some great things together, but the reality is we have a lot of work to do still.”

The Utes are just 14-17 overall and are 10th in the Pac-12 with a 5-10 record, but they are coming off a conference title just a year ago. Jayson Rose, Thursday night's starter, is 4-2 overall in nine starts and has 49 strikeouts in 55.2 innings pitch. He's one of the best, if not the best pitcher in the Pac-12, in Johnson's eyes.

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Ted Kirk/AP

He may be one of the best starting pitchers in the conference, but the righty will have his hands full against one of the most explosive offenses in the country.

The 'Cats have five players hitting over .350, and lead the conference in almost every offensive category including on base percentage, slugging percentage, runs scored, hits, RBIs, doubles, triples, total bases and batting average hitting .332 as team. Oregon State is a far second in the conference at .294.

"We're doing it against such high-level pitching on a consistent basis, which makes it extremely impressive," Johnson said. "(There's) just a lot of consistency in quality of bats one through nine, and in reality probably one through 13."

In Saturday's 18-4 win over Oregon giving the 'Cats the series victory, Alfonso Rivas went 5-5 and JJ Matijevic was 3-4 and clubbed another home run. They are the only two players in the conference hitting over .400. Matijevic is hitting .418. Rivas is right behind him at .415. Last season as a freshman, Rivas was hit just .247.

Rivas says he's seeing the ball better this year all the way from the mound to the batter's box, and is picking up pitches earlier than before.

"I feel more mature, I feel like the game is slower and I'm seeing the ball really well," Rivas said.

Thursday night’s starting pitcher is still to be announced for Arizona, but it looks like ace JC Cloney should get the start. Cloney was forced out of a game against Washington State with tight biceps two weeks ago after facing just one batter, but pitched six innings last week in the team's 5-4 victory over the Ducks on Friday improving to 7-0 on the year.

Cloney or not, 'the Cats have a challenge ahead of them.

"Competing in the Pac-12 is a massive challenge," Johnson said. "Every week tests your team's readiness. You have to have elite preparation on a consistent basis to give yourself a chance to be successful and even when you do that, that success is not guaranteed."

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