Baseball to Tuscon for Pac-12 bragging rights

It's a top-two tussle in Tucson between Stanford and Arizona this weekend. (Opening pitch is 6 p.m. Friday, kzsulive.stanford.edu, 90.1 FM). The Cardinal (16-3, 2-1) and the Wildcats (18-7, 4-2) meet for a three-game series with serious Pac-12 title implications at Hi Corbett Field, a former spring training ballpark featured prominently in the 1989 Charlie Sheen film "Major League".

Large crowds are expected at Arizona baseball's new home for the matchup of preseason conference favorites. Neither team has disappointed this year, although both have shown soft spots.

The Wildcats boast an offense that can give Stanford a run for its money, albeit in a different style. Arizona plays small ball: Andy Lopez's squad combines for a team on-base percentage of .393 and has stolen 44 bags in only 25 games. The Cardinal, meanwhile, have swiped only 15, yet they have blasted three times as many home runs (15) as the Wildcats (five) in seven fewer games.

Shortstop Alex Mejia, right fielder Robert Refsnyder, center fielder Joey Rickard, third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean, and left fielder Johnny Field are all at or near conference offensive statistical leads for Arizona.

They highlight an attack that has supported aces Kurt Heyer (4-1, 2.09 ERA) and Konner Wade (3-0, 3.80 ERA) during the team's hot start. Although co-closers Mathew Troupe and Stephen Manthei have been solid sealing games, poor middle relief has drawn Lopez's ire.

"If they want to surprise me, I'm all for it," said the Arizona skipper, criticizing his bullpen in an interview with the Daily Wildcat this week. Vincent Littleman and Nick Cunningham, in particular, have struggled to throw strikes. "I like surprises, but here's the honest answer: the starters have to go and get the ball to Manthei and Troupe."

Prediction: Although Stanford has sputtered a bit lately in a couple facets of the game, they've still been winning, and, until proven otherwise, Monday's six errors were an aberration. Hi Corbett Field plays very large, and that should play into the Wildcats' small-ball favor. But it's hard to pick against the Cardinal until they actually lose a series, especially when imagining Mark Marquess' strong lineup feasting on Arizona's pie-throwing middle relief.
The Cardinal will have to be clean defensively against a Wildcat team that likes to run wild. Here's betting they can. Stanford takes two of three games this weekend.

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Power rankings

With that taken care of, here are Lombardi's Pac-12 Power Rankings entering this weekend's southwest showdown.

1. Stanford (2-1; previous rank: 1)
The Cardinal's offense slowed a bit over the weekend, but Mark Marquess' bats roared to life Wednesday as they racked up 10 runs against, statistically speaking, the nation's best pitching staff. (St. Mary's had boasted a 2.04 team ERA.)

2. Arizona (4-2; previous rank: 2)
Andy Lopez's squad was able to grind out a hard-fought series victory in the cold Corvallis rain. The Wildcats play small ball and they play it effectively: Aside from having already stolen 44 bases, six of the club's starters sport an on-base percentage of over .400.

3. UCLA (4-2; previous rank: 4)
This Bruins club is a definite darkhorse in the conference race. More clean baseball led to two 12-3 blowouts over Washington State and a quick Pac-12 start.

4. Oregon State (4-2; previous rank: 3)
Freshman Michael Conforto is opening eyes with his play (.387, 4 HR, 29 RBI, 47 TB), but the Beavers couldn't hang on to leads at home against a feisty Arizona offense. Their matchup against Washington this weekend is an intriguing one.

5. Arizona State (3-3; previous rank: 5)
Brady Rodgers threw the ball well for the Sun Devils Friday (complete game, one ER), but the jury is still out: Will this club's postseason ban dampen its motivation moving forward?

6. Washington (2-1; previous rank: 6)
The Huskies had the weekend off from Pac-12 play, and they did what a resurgent program should do against Cal-State Bakersfield, outscoring the Roadrunners 24-5 in a home sweep.

7. Oregon (3-3; previous rank: 7)
The Ducks took the first two at home against Utah, but the way they dropped game three was gut-wrenching. The Utes came back and took the lead in the ninth inning when a home run bounced off Aaron Jones' glove and over the fence.

8. Washington State (2-4; previous rank: 8)
Because of a Sunday rainout at UCLA , the Cougars played in Westwood against the Bruins on Monday morning, and then boarded a bus to Long Beach State to face the Dirtbags in the evening. Donnie Marbut's squad dominated both games during the long day, though they did previously drop the first two against UCLA.

9. USC (2-4; previous rank: 9)
The soft-hitting Trojans can thank Stanford's generosity for getting out of the Bay Area with a win. Seven of USC's eight Monday runs were unearned thanks to six Stanford errors.

10. Cal (1-5 previous rank: 10)
Speaking of miscues, Cal has committed 16 errors in their five Pac-12 losses. They've been clean defensively in their one win. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

11) Utah (3-3; previous rank: 11)
At this point, it's impossible to say that this Utah team can be consistently competitive in the Pac-12. Their three wins: two over punchless USC and one over Oregon, only after what should have been the game-ending fly ball bounced off an outfielders' glove and out of the park.


About the Author: David Lombardi is a Stanford and Pac-12 Conference enthusiast. He has broadcast the Cardinal on KZSU for several years and is currently contributing to the Cardinal Channel. You can check several of his Stanford calls out at www.davidmatthewlombardi.com, where you can also read his West Coast-oriented blog via this direct link. For Stanford baseball insights, follow David on Twitter at davidmlombardi.


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