Four teams have separated themselves as the class of the Pac-12. That's not to say that the rest of the conference is no good, because Oregon St., Arizona St., USC and Washington are all good ball clubs, but an elite four of Arizona, UCLA, Oregon and Stanford have emerged in the conference and figure to make up the best of the best in what may be the top conference in the country.
With a top four so clearly defined, any time two of the teams play each other it's like a dream come true for all 18 diehard Pac-12 baseball fans out there. This weekend, when there are two series featuring two Pac-12 elites squaring off, it's like Christmas morning with Thanksgiving dinner in Candyland, sprinkled with bacon.
Yeah, it's UCLA at Arizona and Oregon at Stanford this weekend. The Wildcats lead the conference at 9-3, one game ahead of the Bruins and Ducks, while the Cardinal are down in the Pac-12 at 4-5, but they are still the most talented team in the conference and with more than a month left, you better believe they have a run left in them.
Nobody is going to say that the big winner this weekend is going to win the conference ... yet. But look back at this weekend on Selection Monday and the team that flashes up on the TV scree in bold as the "Pac-12 Champion" could very well have earned that designation this weekend.
#17 UCLA at #4 Arizona
Arizona is not just the best hitting team in the Pac-12, they're the best hitting team in the nation. That will happen when you have the top four hitters in the conference. Joey Rickard, Alex Mejia, Robert Refsnyder and Seth Mejias-Brean have raked all season, helping the Wildcats to a .331 team batting average.
That's not exactly what the Bruins want to hear considering the way their starting pitchers have been throwing. All three of them got rocked last weekend, although there will be a change this weekend with Zack Weiss returning to the rotation after a bout with shoulder soreness. Even so, the starting pitchers, usually the strength of John Savage teams, have faltered and put a load of pressure on the bullpen, which has been tremendous, but the Bruins starters will need to get it together against an explosive Arizona offense.
UCLA has a good offense of their own to counter with, too. They are the second-best offense in the conference, led by Jeff Gelalich and Tyler Heineman, and they are an uber-athletic team. In fact, they are one of the few teams anywhere in the country that can match Arizona's athleticism. With the Wildcats having moved to the spacious Hi-Corbett Field this season, that athleticism will be on full display this weekend, where defense could make the difference in those gaps and with the slick infield.
#16 Oregon at #6 Stanford
At some point, the Cardinal are going to start hitting like they did in the non-conference. The Ducks just hope it's just not this weekend. But Oregon won't be relying just on hope. They have an excellent pitching staff, which is fresh off of putting the screws to UCLA's explosive offense, to lean on.
Alex Keudell is giving Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year a run and showed why last weekend in seven shutout innings against the Bruins. With Jake Reed and Brando Tessar on Saturday and Sunday, the Ducks have themselves a deep weekend rotation that has been the hallmark of George Horton teams ever since he started racking up College World Series appearances at Cal St. Fullerton.
Few teams are capable of pounding the Ducks pitching staff, but the Cardinal are one of them. They are as deep and talented a lineup as there is, but they haven't hit like it since conference play started and that's why they are down in sixth place. A team with Stephen Piscotty, Kenny Diekroeger, Austin Wilson and Brian Ragira aren't going to go long without hitting, but trying to bust out of a slump against Oregon is not an envious position to be in.
Like Arizona and UCLA, Stanford and Oregon are not just capable of winning the conference, but winning the national title. With all four teams in the top 25 of the RPI, too, this weekend isn't just about winning the Pac-12, but also about resume building so they can carve out a favorable path to Omaha come postseason. In short, this weekend has a little bit of everything. America, feast your eyes on the Pac-12.