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May 15, 2007

(at UA 5, USC 2)
(USC 7, at UA 5)
(USC 4, at UA 2)

At least thereís no more pressure.

Iím a day late this week because the weekendís baseball series ran from Saturday to Monday, and the Wildcat baseball players have a new reason to hate Mondays. The UA lost its first home series of the season in dropping two of three to the Trojans of USC.. Add to that an unfortunate turn of events in Tempe and the Cats are all but eliminated from the Pac-10 race.

In the be-careful-what-you-wish-for category, I said last week that we should root for ASU beat UCLA twice over the weekend. Well, they did, but then the Devils went ahead and won the third game to hold onto sole possession of first place.

If you were looking at the box scores from the ASU/UCLA series you may have wondered when the Pac-10 took up bowling. There were six-run frames and five-run frames all over the place. Not many strikes but plenty of runs to spare.

UCLA scored 28 runs in the three-game series and didnít win a single game. In contrast, USC only needed 13 runs against us to win twice. The Bruins blew an eight-run lead on Friday, a seven-run lead on Sunday, and in between lost a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth. Brutal.

Yes, underneath all this bitterness is some jealously of our neighbors to the north. It's going to be really tough to beat the Phoenix Suns of college baseball in their diamond-shaped gym. But we'll run into that buzzsaw when we get to it.

Back in Tucson, it was another frustrating weekend for the good guys, who have now lost seven of ten conference games after starting 8-0. Even Saturdayís game wasnít a typical Preston Guilmet performance. Well, it was typical in that he went the full nine innings, only gave up a couple runs, and won, but other than that it was different. The Trojans were actually hitting some hard shots off our ace, he was just getting help from his defense. The seventh, eighth and ninth innings all ended with a runner getting tagged out on the base paths, including a beautiful strike to home plate from T.J. Steele in centerfield. We even got to see USCís third-base coach get ejected for arguing balls and strikes, which is always fun.

But the final two games of the series were painfully similar. For the Wildcats both games followed the same script: seven innings of jack squat in terms of offense, fielding errors contributing to deficits, an attempted comeback fueled by a big Bill Rhinehart hit in the eighth inning, and an annoyingly close loss.

ASU now leads the conference by two full games over UCLA and three games over us. Unless the Devils suddenly forget they are a baseball-crushing machine the league title could be clinched before our season-ending series with them even begins.

As far as our guys, when I said thereís no more pressure, thatís not entirely true. While we have lost the opportunity to win Andy Lopez's first Pac-10 championship, there is still a ton for which to play. Not only do we have to secure an NCAA tournament berth, but thereís a still a chance we could play postseason games at home.

In case youíre new to the game of college baseball, the national tournament features a field of 64 but May Madness runs a lot differently than its basketball counterpart. For one thing you can lose more than once and still bring home the trophy. The NCAA baseball playoffs are divided into four rounds (regionals, super regionals, College World Series and the CWS championship series) and each round is double-elimination.

The first round is made up of 16 four-team regionals played on the host teamís home field. As you might imagine, itís a big advantage to host. How hard is it to host a regional? It depends where you live.

In the two major college sports we talk about an East Coast bias. In baseball thereís a South Coast bias that canít be ignored. In the past four years at least 11 of the 16 regionals each year have been played in states that lost the Civil War.

Out west we have less than a handful of hosting spots to fight for each season. Traditionally the Pac-10 champion hosts a regional. In the last few years Cal State Fullerton of the Big West Conference has been a regular host. After that thereís sometimes room for a second SoCal team (Long Beach State in 2005 and Pepperdine last year) and/or the second place Pac team (ASU in 2003 and 2005).

This year looks good for at least three regionals for the West. ASU will be hosting for sure. Long Beach is this yearís Fullerton, and the University of San Diego is even better than them. Our only hope is the Confederate States of Baseball allow a fourth regional to escape past the Rockies, and we have to win out over teams like UC-Riverside and UC-Irvine.

In order for that to happen we have to pass UCLA for second place in the Pac standings. In order for that to happen we need to win the home series with Washington next week and have a strong showing in Tempe. In order for that to happen we have to start hitting the baseball with greater force at a much higher frequency.

Our Pac-10 dreams have been put on hold for another year but weíll see what else we can grab. Now itís time to set our sights on becoming a regional site. And that would be a beautiful sight.

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