University of Arizona baseball head coach Jay Johnson left plenty of reasons to be excited for this upcoming season at last week’s media session.
“It’s like you have three shortstops at those three positions that are really good defensive players, and I think that’s really going to help our team defensively and really help our pitchers,” Johnson said at the session.
Johnson was referring to Kyson Donnahue (shortstop), Tony Bullard (third base) and Jacob Blas (second base), who are set to lead a revamped season for the Wildcats infield.
Arizona is coming off an extremely poor defensive season as a team, finishing dead last in the conference in fielding percentage (.962%) and committing the most errors (79). They are determined to turn that around heading into a new season.
The Wildcats’ most versatile defender, redshirt junior Matthew Dyer, returns for another season to lead the team both on the field and at the plate.
“I’m really excited to see what we have in store,” Dyer said. “We have a lot of experience. Last year we had a lot of freshmen that stepped up, and I think this year them being sophomores is going to really come to show that even though we’re [primarily] a sophomore- and junior-position player team that we’re here to show out.”
Despite losing Matt Frazier, Nick Quintana and Cameron Cannon from last year’s team, Arizona’s lineup has come back deeper than it has ever been this season.
“I think looking at it through the winter after fall baseball, I’d say probably 13 guys for nine spots,” Johnson said when asked about how many players are viable options for the starting lineup. “I think if you look back at our track record of offensive success and developing players, we’re continually getting good ones to Arizona and I think our depth has really increased each year.”
Johnson reflected back to the 2016 season when the team made it to Omaha, Neb., but the lineup was really lacking the depth it needed.
“It was like a, ‘Man, I hope somebody doesn’t get hurt’ kind of deal,” Johnson said. “There were 10 guys that we really ran out there game in and game out and I think that has increased each year. I think we’re in a good spot.”
The Wildcats finished last season close to the top of every offensive category in the conference, finishing first in runs scored, hits, doubles and triples, as well as batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. They’ll look to carry that momentum into this season, continuing to mash opposing pitchers.
Arizona will also have to drastically improve in pitching as a team if they want to make it back to the NCAA Tournament, which finished toward the bottom of the conference last year in ERA and walks allowed.
The first step made by the Wildcats to improve the pitching staff this year was bringing in Nate Yeskie as the team’s new pitching coach. Yeskie won a National Championship with Oregon State in 2018 and was named the D1 Baseball Assistant Coach of the Year in 2017. He hopes to help turn around an Arizona pitching staff that is relatively different compared to last season.
One player who couldn’t be more excited to work with Yeskie is Davis Vainer, a graduate transfer from Alabama.
“That was kind of the cherry on top,” Vainer said. “I had a tremendous relationship with coach Johnson. Then when that happened, I was just like, ‘All right, I guess it was meant to be.’”
Vainer is coming off a 2019 campaign in which he appeared in 17 games to the tune of a 3.34 ERA with 43 strikeouts across 29.2 innings pitched. The one drawback is the 21 walks he surrendered, but he did lower his ERA each season with the Crimson Tide.
One thing to note is that he was a position player in high school, so he certainly still has room for improvement as a collegiate pitcher. However, being the most experienced pitcher on this staff, Johnson hopes to utilize him in tight situations.
“I just want him to utilize his experience to kind of have a slow heartbeat when being called upon … and set a good example for our team and give them a chance to execute,” Johnson said.
Vainer had the opportunity to go pro when he was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 21st round of the 2019 MLB draft, but he instead chose to come to Tucson to have a chance to win in college.
“I was definitely tempted,” Vainer said. “I just want to play meaningful baseball and I just wanted to win in college. I thought this would be my best opportunity for that.”
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