Arizona catcher Riley Moore would have given you a fiery answer about his team being back and out with a vengeance, had you asked for his thoughts about Arizona being snubbed from the preseason top 25 rankings in January.
Even though the Wildcats have reached that ranking — debuting at No. 22 on the USA Today/ESPN poll, as well as No. 25 on the d1baseball.com and NCBWA polls and No. 13 in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper poll — Moore’s opinion is no different.
“I wouldn’t even say we’re starting to come into our own with that whole ‘vengeance’ thing where we need to get this program back,” Moore said. “We’ve still got plenty of work to do.”
Arizona (22-6, 7-2) has already showed noticeably different work this season. The team is off to its best start since 2007, when coach Andy Lopez’s team started 22-6 as well. The last time the Wildcats started 7-2 in Pac-12 Conference play was 2012, the season they eventually swept the College World Series.
Arizona’s offense is good — really good. The Wildcats are ranked No. 1 in the nation in team batting average at .332, headed by the middle infield duo of Scott Kingery and Kevin Newman. The two rank No. 1 and No. 4, respectively, in hits, with 53 and 49, while they come in at first and 10th, respectively, in individual batting average at .453 and .426.
They also lead off the batting lineup for Arizona, something that Moore, who bats third, said is surreal but fun and something that Arizona baseball is supposed to be doing.
“Statistically speaking, they’re as good as I’ve seen with their work ethic and the way they go about things,” Moore said. “That’s just the ultimate baseball mentality.”
Moore joins Newman and Kingery as one of six consistent starters batting over .300. The catcher has driven in 27 RBIs in 34 hits, which he said is easy to do when he follows such a strong leadoff pair.
But, when it comes down to it, Arizona’s offense is pretty consistent every year. The team ranked second in the Pac-12 in batting average last year despite a 22-33 season, just 9-21 in conference play, and it was first in batting the three years before that.
Aside from last season, Arizona placed in the top two for slugging percentage in the conference since 2011. The Wildcats were sixth in 2014.
The real difference for the Wildcats has been on the mound. Arizona pitchers, compared to last year, are substantially more effective, throwing for a combined 3.39 ERA through 28 games this season.
This time last year, the team sported a lowly 4.32 ERA through 28 games (they were 11-17) and ended the season even higher at 4.49.
The struggles ran from starter to closer. Arizona recorded just four saves in 55 games in 2014; it already has nine this season.
Tyger Talley has been a catalyst for this year’s pitching. He is 3-0 in seven starts and has shown what Lopez calls “great maturity” between last season and now.
The Sunday starter’s ERA has dropped from 3.66 last season to 3.18. Talley also leads the team in strikeouts, with 37, halfway through the regular season.
Nathan Bannister is another huge factor in Arizona’s defensive success. Lopez’s go-to reliever has pitched 33.2 innings for a 2.41 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 12 appearances.
“In another group or another situation, he might be a starter,” Lopez said. “[I’m] not secure enough when I do this high wire act called putting our rotation together, so I like to work with a net. … He’s the net.”
Bannister was initially in the contest for a starting pitching spot, but has since adapted to his pivotal role in the bullpen.
“Once you get in the pen, you don’t think you’ll go for more than four innings but a few times I have,” Bannister said. “I’ve come into [my role] naturally, I think, and I just want to get those outs.”
Bannister said better damage control has been the biggest factor that the pitching staff has contributed, especially being able to get out of situations when there’s bases loaded with less than two outs.
But he also said it comes back to hitting and knowing Arizona can do big things at the plate.
The next two series will put the newly ranked Wildcats to the test. They host No. 9 USC this weekend and travel to rival No. 10 ASU next weekend.
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