How crazy was the Pac-12 title race? On Saturday morning there was a chance that there could be a five-way tie for the conference championship.
Entering the weekend, Oregon, Arizona, UCLA, Stanford and Arizona St. all had chances at the conference crown and while the Cardinal's chances were gone by the final day, the craziness wasn't.Teams all around the conference were scoreboard watching and trying to make sense of a crazy final Sunday, but in the end, it was the Bruins and Wildcats who came out on top to share the Pac-12 title.
Because almost half of the conference in a race for the conference title wasn't enough, there were also rivalry series going on up and down the coast. Oregon was taking on Oregon St., Arizona squared off against Arizona St., UCLA hosted USC and Stanford was playing Cal.
Oregon had the conference lead for a month and looked like the favorites to win the conference in just their fourth year since reviving their baseball program. They were a game up on Arizona at the start of the weekend and two games clear of UCLA, Stanford and Arizona St. so the Ducks controlled their destiny, but there was a little bit more tension in the Beaver State than just the regular rivalry series angst.
A year ago, Oregon St. entered the final weekend of the season in first place and needing two wins against rival Oregon to clinch the conference title, while one would prove to be enough to get a share of the crown. The Ducks were already eliminated from contention for a Regional spot and had nothing left to play for, but they still went out and swept the Beavers, taking the conference title away from their rivals and handing it to UCLA. This time around, the Beavers had the chance to do the same to the Ducks.
In the first two games of this weekend's series in Corvallis, that is exactly what Oregon St. did. They grabbed the opening game, 7-3, then threw the tying run out at the plate for the final out of Saturday's clash. With UCLA taking the first two games of their series and Arizona winning one of two in their set, Sunday began with the Bruins, Wildcats and Ducks in a three-way tie for first, the Sun Devils a game back and the Cardinal eliminated after dropping their first two games of the weekend.
Oregon and Oregon St. got underway at noon, an hour before UCLA and USC started in Los Angeles and Arizona and Arizona St. started in Tucson. Things didn't go well for the Ducks early on as the Beavers scored in the first then added a second run in the third to make it 2-0 just as the Bruins and Wildcats started their contests.
Arizona got off to a dream start, putting up four runs in the first inning and eventually building an early 7-1 lead. Meanwhile, UCLA and USC were trading runs, going 2-2 and then 3-3. As of 2 pm, the Wildcats were in the driver's seat.
Just as UCLA fell behind 4-2, though, Arizona St. started chipping away at Arizona's lead, scoring three in the fifth and one in the sixth to make it a 7-5 ballgame. Then the Bruins came back to score three to go ahead, 5-4. Advantage UCLA and Arizona.
All the while, Oregon's offense was showing no signs of life. The death blow to Oregon came in the seventh inning when Oregon St. added three more to put themselves up 5-0, a lead they would hold onto and do to the Ducks what the Ducks did to them a year ago -- kill their conference title hopes.
At this point, Oregon was just praying that Arizona and UCLA would both blow their leads, and they almost did. First, Abe Ruiz roped a two-run, two-out double for Arizona St. to tie the game at 7-7. The Sun Devils then put men on the corners with one out in the inning and were threatening to take the lead, but a double play got them out of the inning still even.
Then in Los Angeles, UCLA allowed USC to plate a run on a bases loaded, two out, passed ball on a strikeout in the top of the eighth. The Bruins and Trojans were all even in the eighth just like the Wildcats. If both teams lost, Arizona St. would jump up and join Arizona, UCLA and Oregon in a four-way tie for the conference title.
It wasn't meant to be, though. Johnny Field, who secured the Pac-12 batting title earlier in the day, came through with a walk-off single and Arizona claimed a 8-7 win. Oregon and Arizona St. were eliminated from conference title contention and it came down to UCLA. If they won, they would share the title with Arizona, but if they lost, the crown for the Wildcats'.
Pat Valaika broke the tie in Los Angeles with a two-RBI single in the eighth and UCLA led 7-5, but their shaky closer Scott Griggs still had to go out there in the ninth. He looked very much shaky, surrendering three straight singles that scored a run and cut the Bruins' lead to 7-6. There was just one out in the inning and the tying run was standing at second base. Momentum was on the Trojans' side, but Griggs came through, inducing back-to-back fielder's choice groundouts and UCLA won 7-6.
To summarize: Oregon, UCLA and Arizona started the day tied for first and Arizona St. was a game back. Oregon and Arizona St. lost so both fell back and UCLA and Arizona won to share the conference title.
It wasn't just a matter of winning the conference championship, although that's plenty to get excited about. Winning a share of the Pac-12 title gives the Bruins a chance at the number one national seed when the postseason tournament is revealed on Monday's Selection Show, while the Wildcats now have an outside chance at a national seed.
Moreover, the conference titles were major historical benchmarks in both Los Angeles and Tucson. For UCLA, the conference title was their second consecutive, giving them back-to-back titles for the first time in school history. Down in Arizona, the Wildcats claimed their first conference championship in 20 years.
A crazy day to cap a crazy season and one UCLA and Arizona are not going to forget anytime soon.