UA hosts final baseball series with ASU; Pac-12 title on line

This may be a holiday weekend for most people, but not for the Arizona and Arizona State baseball teams.  When they meet tonight for the first of three games, both teams will be hard at work.

This ain’t vacation time, baby, this is serious business.  A lot is at stake for both Pac-12 teams – most importantly the conference standings.

Arizona is sitting in second place, just a game behind top-ranked Oregon.  ASU  is in a three-way tie with UCLA and Stanford for third place, just two games behind the Ducks.

This is also a match-up between two nationally-ranked teams, with the Wildcats (36-16, 18-9) ranked No. 13 and the Sun Devils (35-18, 17-10) close behind at No. 16.

And this is the final weekend of Pac-12 play to close out the regular season.  Earlier in the schedule, the teams split a two-game series in Tempe, with ASU winning the first, 12-8, and the Cats coming back to take the second game in dominating fashion, 10-2.

It doesn’t get much better than this – which is why Arizona officials are anticipating one of the biggest crowds of the season at the team’s new home in Hi Corbett Field (8/11/11 phxfan article).  Between tickets already sold for tonight’s game and those that go to walk-ups, there should be more than 2,000 fans in attendance for the opener.

The major-league facility will provide the perfect stage for an exciting season finale that will include a post-game fireworks display tonight and a ceremonial send-off for the team’s seniors tomorrow, when UA head basketball coach Sean Miller throws out the first pitch.

Arizona also has a little more at stake on the outcome of the series.  A good showing against a ranked team like ASU may help the Cats earn the NCAA’s approval to host the regional tournament.  The last time they played host was back in 1992.

The fact that the team is now playing in Hi Corbett Field, which seats 8,665 and is used for major league spring training games and minor league games, also enables Arizona to meet the NCAA requirements for the kind of facility necessary to host regional games.

But neither team is looking that far ahead right now.  This weekend’s series will demand the full attention of both.

Arizona leads the Pac-12 in both team batting average (.326) and runs (374) coming into tonight’s game.  Johnny Field leads the squad with a .374 average, followed closely by Robert Refsnyder‘s .364.  For the Sun Devils, Michael Benjamin‘s .361 leads the way.

The Cats don’t hit for power as much as ASU; they have put up just 18 this season.  But the Sun Devils get their share of home runs, combining for 41 this season, led by Abe Ruiz‘s 13 – which is tops in the conference.  Ruiz and Joey DeMichele both rank in the conference’s top 10 in slugging percentage.

Pitching advantage is a toss-up for tonight’s opener, since ASU’s Brady Rodgers and Arizona’s Kurt Heyer both sport 10-2 season records.  The ASU pitching staff makes batters earn their way around the bases; it’s tops in the conference in walks allowed with 119.

There are the usual points on the line in the State Farm Territorial Cup Series, but that competition has been decided, since these three games are the final opportunities for points this season and Arizona holds an insurmountable 11.5 – 5.5 advantage.

But there is so much more at stake, beginning tonight.  And that’s why these guys will be hard at work over a holiday weekend.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)