Arizona Baseball

Arizona baseball swinging hot bats halfway through Pac-12 play

Arizona coach Jay Johnson leads a team that is hitting .331 (Photo courtesy of (Arizona Athletics)

The seventh-ranked Arizona Wildcats baseball team took a series win against Oregon on Saturday afternoon by doing what it does best — swing the bats.

“We have really good players that take professional at-bats,” coach Jay Johnson said after the 18-4 victory at Hi Corbett Field. “They don’t operate based on how they feel. They operate based on their process of getting themselves ready to play and then competing in the moment.”

Arizona leads the Pac-12 in every major offensive category expect home runs. Nick Quintana has reached base for 24 straight games and JJ Matijevic leads the team with a .418 batting average, but it was Alfonso Rivas who dominated Saturday.

“There’s some guys who were put on the planet to hit,” Johnson said. “Alfonso’s working his way into that category.”

As the designated hitter, Rivas went 5-for-5 with two RBIs and four runs. He improved his average to .415 as Arizona’s relentless attack produced 23 hits. In just the first two innings, the offense accumulated eight singles and two doubles to drive in eight runs.

On the defensive end, Arizona ranks in last place in the conference for fielding percentage and has made 47 errors. However, an errorless performance Saturday was a sign the Wildcats are moving in the right direction.

“Our defense has improved dramatically,” Johnson said.

Arizona was handed their first home loss of the season in Thursday night’s 4-hour, 24-minute series opener. Oregon pitcher and MLB prospect, David Peterson, came into the game with a 77-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Arizona scored a couple of early runs against him, but the Ducks prevailed 8-4. Peterson struck out five and walked one in six innings.

It was a small moral victory to battle well against Peterson, giving Arizona’s offense confidence for the remainder of the series.

“I’m actually pleased with a lot of the at-bats to get Peterson to 110 pitches in six innings,” Johnson said Thursday night. “It’s a good job by our offense.”

Arizona ace JC Cloney, who suffered from arm tendonitis, returned to the mound Friday night, but Johnson still has uncertainties for the pitching rotation. Johnson said the coaching staff is “closer than we were opening day” to figuring it out, but the plan for the near future is to remain flexible.

In the nerve-racking 5-4 win Friday night, Cloney improved his record this season to 7-0.

Then, on Saturday, the Wildcats’ good hitting beat Oregon’s good pitching — in a big way.

Going into the matchup, Oregon’s pitching staff was holding opponents to a .238 batting average, ranking third in the Pac-12. Meanwhile, the Wildcats are now hitting .331 as a team, with five regulars — Matijevic, Rivas, Oliva, Mitchell Morimoto and Quintana — hitting above .350.

Arizona (26-9 overall, 9-6 Pac-12) will carry that hot hitting into the second half of Pac-12 play. Johnson said that, aside from deciphering the pitching rotation, defense is one of the biggest adjustments the team will work on as it heads down the stretch of the regular season.

The first half of conference play was marked by resiliency for Arizona, which has played the second toughest schedule in the nation up to this point. The Wildcats are 19-1 at home and 5-7 on the road.

“This league is unreal,” Johnson said. “I’m pleased that we won some series against really good competition both at home and on the road. We’re going to keep it about improvement.”

After being swept by the nation’s best, Oregon State, on the road late last month, the Wildcats came home and swept USC, beat rival ASU in a mid-week game, then won series at Washington State and against Oregon.

The rest of Pac-12 play will mostly include teams ranked in the bottom half of the conference, such as ASU, Stanford and the Wildcats’ next opponent, Utah. Still, no game can be taken for an easy victory beforehand.

Jayson Rose, Utah’s top starting pitcher, is up next for the Wildcats on Thursday. Rose is ranked in the top 50 for college draft prospects and has a 4-2 record. In yet another battle against good pitching, Arizona will have to prove once again that good hitting prevails.

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