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Utah atop Pac-12 despite losing record

SALT LAKE CITY — Calling the 2016 Pac-12 baseball season odd may be an understatement.

Utah is tied for first place despite having an overall losing record and finishing last every year since joining the league in 2012.

Three games separate the first- and ninth-place teams.

There are only three programs in the top 50 of the RPI, with Arizona the highest at No. 23. By comparison, 12 ACC teams are in the top 50, five of them in the top 10, and the SEC has nine in the top 50, five in the top 10.

"I don't know if there's any rhyme or reason for it because every year it seems like about five or six teams kind of separate themselves in the conference," Southern California coach Dan Hubbs said. "I don't know how to explain it, to be honest with you. I talk about it basically with every coach we play, every weekend: 'Can you believe this league?' And we've never seen anything like it."

Utah (18-24, 13-8 Pac-12) is the biggest anomaly after winning a combined 11 conference games the last two seasons and 25 in four years. The Utes were 3-11 when their seniors — the first full recruiting class after the school joined the Pac-12 — pulled the team together for a meeting. Days later, the Utes won their conference-opening series at Oregon (22-19, 10-11) and did the same the following weekend at Arizona State (28-16, 11-10). The highlight of the season was a home sweep of Arizona (31-16, 14-10).

"We got it going in all three phases and we won some close games, and I think once you start doing that, the guys start to believe, which is a huge word in our vocabulary," Utah coach Bill Kinneberg said. "I think that clicked for the veterans, and the new guys kind of added onto that.

"We were really disappointed after the first four weeks of the year. We weren't at all the team that we are at this point. Are we surprised that we won (13) games in conference? Maybe, maybe not."

Freshman center fielder DaShawn Keirsey added, "Once we beat Oregon, everyone kind of realized we're just as good as everyone else, if not better, and it just carried over and we just kept getting momentum and riding it."

Senior shortstop Cody Scaggari said the subject of the team meeting in March was moving beyond the program's past struggles and trusting the coaching staff.

The Utes are not an imposing offensive team, but they've raised their batting average to .269 after being at .252 last season and .233 in 2014. Utah is batting .275 in Pac-12 games this season, second only to USC (.294), and Scaggari leads the team with a .341 average in conference play and .315 overall. No. 1 starting pitcher Jayson Rose (6-5, 2.42 ERA) has struck out a conference-best 86 in 81 2/3 innings and closer Dylan Drachler has seven saves.

As for the rest of the Pac-12, injuries and other issues have taken a toll on some of the premier pitchers. Stanford's Cal Quantrill still hasn't pitched after having Tommy John surgery in March 2015, California pitcher Daulton Jefferies has been out since April 1 with a right calf injury and Oregon star left-hander Matt Krook has struggled the last month after missing 2015 because of Tommy John surgery.

Pac-12 teams have beaten up on each other, so conference losses to teams without stellar nonconference records have affected the RPI rankings. Some coaches believe RPI doesn't accurately reflect the performance of Pac-12 teams.

"The players in the league and teams in the league (are) as strong as it's ever been as far as the depth of all the teams," Oregon State coach Pat Casey said. "If you're in certain areas, it's tough to get RPI games early in the year and boost your RPI.

"It depends on what the (NCAA selection) committee decides they're going to put a point of emphasis on this year. ...They know the conference is strong and I think that there are years where the committee can sit down and say the RPI may not reflect a conference's strengths."