Image credit: Arizona State outfielder Hunter Bishop (Photo by Bill Mitchell)
Perhaps more than any other major conference in 2019, the Pac-12 had a clear upper, middle, and lower class.
At the top were UCLA, Stanford and Oregon State, the three teams that were in the mix to win the regular season title when it was all said and done. Ultimately, the Bruins, led by the best pitching staff in the country, came out on top by two games. All three ended up hosting regionals before each had its season end earlier than it would have liked as they all fell short of the College World Series.
That middle class was led by California and Arizona State, which were the fourth and fifth teams in the league to earn a spot in the postseason. While there have been seasons in the recent past that made many bemoan the state of Pac-12 baseball, fielding three teams that appeared to be Omaha contenders heading into the postseason and five total postseason teams was a positive step. No team from the conference reached the College World Series, however, making for a sour finish to the season.
Arizona (32-24, 15-14), no postseason ????
Perhaps no team in the country was hotter than Arizona down the stretch of the regular season. The Wildcats won their final eight conference games and their last 10 overall, but it was too little, too late to undo the damage of a sluggish first 10 weeks. There simply wasn’t enough meat on the bone of their postseason resume.
In the end, it didn’t feel much different than the result in 2018, when Arizona was two games better in the overall record, but finished under .500 in league play and ended up left out of the Field of 64. That puts some pressure on Jay Johnson’s program to get back into the postseason in 2020 to avoid missing out for a third straight year.
Arizona State (38-19, 16-13), reached regionals ??
After a two-season absence, Arizona State got back into the postseason for the first time since 2016. In the early going, it really felt like old times in Tempe, as the Sun Devils were college baseball’s final undefeated team at 21-0. The level of competition during that run wasn’t great, and ASU really slowed down as conference play got underway, but that early hot streak was a big catalyst in the team getting back to a regional.
Expectations are always high for this program, but they will be particularly high in 2020. Led by Spencer Torkelson, the Sun Devils should be dynamic on offense once again, and the Achilles heel of the 2019 team, the pitching staff, should be much improved, thanks in part to the arrival of new pitching coach Jason Kelly. If things go right, Arizona State could be back in Omaha for the first time since 2010.
California (32-20, 17-11), reached regionals ??
In his second season at the helm, coach Mike Neu led the Golden Bears to their first regional appearance—and their best finish in the Pac-12—since 2015. The best word to describe Cal’s 2019 season is consistent. It lost all three of its series against the league’s top three teams, but didn’t get swept in any of them, and went 14-5 against the rest of the conference. It was a solid regional team all season long that never really dipped all that close to the bubble but also never really challenged to rise to the level of a top-16 overall seed.
Taking the wider view, Cal continues to make the most of its situation. It has obvious challenges, such as its stadium and the school’s overall athletic budget. And yet, the program fields a solid team year after year.
Oregon (27-29, 10-19), no postseason ??
The George Horton era in Eugene came to a disappointing end in 2019, with the Ducks missing out on the postseason for the fourth consecutive season. The season also made it five straight years that Oregon finished sixth or worse in the league standings, and its 10-19 mark in conference play was the worst under Horton since the relaunched program’s first team went 4-23 back in 2009.
Mark Wasikowski was hired away from Purdue to replace Horton, and it’s easy to see why he was the choice for the position. He was most recently seen turning the Boilermakers into a regional team in 2018, just two seasons after going 10-44 overall, and his time as an assistant at Oregon, from 2012-2016, is closely aligned with the best years for the program under Horton.
Oregon State (36-20-1, 21-8), reached regionals ??
For much of the 2019 season, it was clear that this Oregon State team was simply not as good or as deep as the one that had just finished winning a national title in 2018, but over that same period of time, the results weren’t much different. As the calendar began to turn from April to May, however, cracks began to show. Beginning with a midweek loss to Gonzaga on April 30, Oregon State finished the season 4-10, and although it was able to hang on to nab a host spot, it went 0-2 in its home regional.
The Beavers’ offseason has also raised eyebrows. Former head coach Pat Casey declined to exercise the option in his contract that would have allowed him to return to the dugout for the 2020 season, and when the search for a coach concluded, Oregon State went with Mitch Canham over either interim head coach Pat Bailey or pitching coach Nate Yeskie, as had been expected. As a national championship-winning catcher at Oregon State with several years of minor league coaching under his belt, Canham brings a lot to the table, but it still was a surprise and ushers in a new era in Corvallis.
Southern California (25-29-1, 13-15-1), no postseason ????
At times, the Trojans showed high-end ability in 2019. They played Arkansas close in an early season series, beat Michigan in the Dodger Stadium Classic and, most impressively, won series against Arizona State, California and Oregon State, all postseason teams. But ultimately, that wasn’t enough to get them into a regional.
At the end of the season, the contract of coach Dan Hubbs wasn’t renewed, and USC turned to Jason Gill to lead the program. Gill was the head coach at Loyola Marymount for 11 seasons, leading them to a regional final in 2019.
Stanford (45-14, 22-7), reached super regionals ????
Stanford lived up to its immense potential during an outstanding regular season. The Cardinal were a top-five team for the bulk of the campaign and were right there with UCLA for the Pac-12 regular season title until the Bruins caught fire and won the league by two games.
On the other hand, Stanford’s postseason resume didn’t stack up with other teams vying for a top-eight seed. In turn, the Cardinal caught a tough break in having to go on the road, to Starkville no less, for a super regional, where they saw their season come to an end. For a proud program like this one, an Omaha drought that goes back to 2008 is a tough reality to face. But with the way the team has performed each of the last two seasons, Stanford certainly feels closer than it has in a long while.
UCLA (52-11, 24-6), reached super regionals ??
Even with a preseason No. 3 ranking, there were questions about UCLA coming into the season, most notably about what we could expect from a rebuilt starting rotation. The Bruins quickly proved that any worries were unfounded, and they rode that rotation all the way to a 2.60 team ERA and a No. 1 ranking for most of the season.
A team that looked like a surefire national title contender from beginning to end in the regular season ended up falling short of that, however, when Michigan came to Jackie Robinson Stadium and took two of three in a super regional. Despite that disappointing ending, UCLA enjoyed a historically successful season in 2019 that deserves to be celebrated as such.
Utah (16-33, 6-24), no postseason ??
The Utes struggled to their second consecutive 16-win season in 2019, and their 6-24 record in the Pac-12 was their worst since going 4-26 back in 2014. There were bright spots in a lineup that hit .270/.355/.381 as a team, but a pitching staff with a 5.88 ERA and just one pitcher with an ERA better than 4.91 often struggled to string enough outs together.
In an effort to get things moving in the right direction from a pitching perspective, coach Bill Kinneberg brought in Gary Henderson to be the program’s new pitching coach. He has a long track record of success in that role at previous stops, most notably Kentucky and Mississippi State.
Washington (28-24, 12-17), no postseason ??
The Huskies weren’t able to follow up a College World Series appearance in 2018 with a postseason appearance in 2019, even with key pieces from that Omaha team like catcher Nick Kahle, slugger Joe Wainhouse and righthander Jordan Jones back in the fold. Coming down the stretch, UW was within shouting distance of an RPI and conference record that would have at least put them in the at-large discussion, but five consecutive losses to end the season against California and UCLA doomed those hopes.
Despite not securing a follow-up postseason appearance, there is still some positive momentum in this program, but it will be important in 2020 and beyond for Washington to continue building before that CWS trip gets too far in the rear-view mirror.
Washington State (11-42-1, 3-26-1), no postseason ??
A program that has really struggled to find consistency since its peak under coach Chuck “Bobo” Brayton in the 1970s and 1980s bottomed out in 2019. The 11 wins are the fewest for Washington State since 1945, when the team won nine games as part of a 14-game schedule. And the three league wins are the fewest since 2005, when the Cougars went 1-23 in Pac-12 play.
The team never did better than 24-29 overall and 11-19 in league play in four seasons under Marty Lees. After the season, Lees was relieved of his duties and replaced with Brian Green. At New Mexico State, Green averaged 32 wins, led the Aggies to regionals in 2018 and created explosive offenses. He will look to do the same in Pullman, one of the toughest places to win in a Power Five conference.