Utah baseball will continue their strange and surprising season when they play the rubber match of a three game series Sunday afternoon against the Stanford Cardinal. Despite dropping Saturday's game 4-2 to the Cardinal, the Utes hold a narrow lead in the PAC-12 with a 14-9 conference record. Hot on the Utes heals are Arizona at 15-11 and Washington at 13-10.
The very fact that Utah is in first place in the PAC-12 is hard to fathom. This is a program that has never finished above last place in the PAC-12 since joining four years ago. They were just 25-94 in Pac-12 play since joining, with no star players or future high round draft picks on the roster coming into this year.
To make matters even more unbelievable, Utah's overall record this season is not very good. When taking into account total records, including non conference play, Utah has the eleventh best record in the PAC-12 at 19-25. The only team worse is Washington State at 17-28 overall. The difference for Utah between non conference play and Pac-12 play has been night and day however, as Utah transformed into a different team beginning with PAC-12 play and has ridden their hot streak to the top of the standings.
Utah's season started out 3-11 before conference play opened on March 18th. It appeared it would be another season of cellar dwelling baseball for the Utes. Something changed that first weekend of conference play against Oregon though. The Utes took two of three from the Ducks in Eugene to open the PAC-12 season. They did it again the following week against the Sun Devils in Tempe. They then swept Arizona in Salt Lake and the confidence the team was beginning to build snowballed. The Utes have won five of their seven conference series so far this season with a chance to pick up their sixth series win today.
As mentioned earlier, there are no future first round picks hiding on the Utes roster. This new found success is 100% a team effort. The Utes have seven different players hitting .280 or higher and are tied for second in the PAC-12 for team batting average. The pitchers have been reliable as well, ranking 5th in the PAC-12 in ERA. Sophomore pitcher Jayson Rose leads the team with 13 games started and also leads the team with a 2.48 ERA and 7-5 record. The most important factor in Utah's turnaround however is simply their resiliency. When things are not bouncing the Utes' way, the team refuses to quit, staying focused on the pitch at hand and fighting until the final out.
Looking ahead it is critical for Utah to finish out the season strong if they want any shot at post season play. With a losing overall record, the odds of Utah receiving an at large berth are slim to none. To qualify for the postseason Utah will need to win the Pac-12.
Utah finishes their home series with Stanford this afternoon before playing a single game against BYU on Tuesday. Utah will then have a three game series next weekend against Cal in Berkeley before finishing up at home against Washington in a series that could very well determine the Pac-12 champion.
After a rough start to PAC-12 membership for the baseball program, things are beginning to look up under Bill Kinneberg. With a proposal for on campus stadium in the works, the timing couldn't be better. If you want to get out and support the Utes in their push for the PAC-12 title you can head down to Smith's Ballpark today at 1pm for the series finale against Stanford.