Three things that can put Arizona baseball back into the NCAA tournament
After finishing the 2019 campaign with 10-straight wins and going 14-1 in the final month of the season, Arizona baseball fell just shy of qualifying for the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row.
Despite ending the season on a high note and having what might have felt like a strong enough resume to play in the postseason, head coach Jay Johnson felt there were a handful of games last season that Arizona let get away.
“I don’t think any of those games were approached the wrong way; I think the execution needed to be better to finish a couple of those [games] out,” Johnson said. “You pick any one of five or six of them and it makes a difference, something we’ve always driven home. The answer to completing them is entirely on fundamentals, and that’s where we’re putting our focus.”
Junior catcher and utility player Matthew Dyer admitted that the weight of missing the NCAA tournament last season affects the upcoming season. Dyer said, however, the team is taking that failure and turning it into motivation for the new year.
“It carries over a little bit,” Dyer said. “We don’t like to put that pressure upon ourselves. We just play with that. It’s like a burning fire underneath all of us to come out and really show what we have. Each year is a new year. Thinking back to last year, there’s no doubt that we left the season with everything we had.”
With the goal of returning to Omaha for the first time since 2016, the Wildcats will need to improve in a few different areas to relive the postseason experience. Here’s what Arizona baseball will need to do to this season to return to the NCAA tournament in 2020.
The pitching staff needs to carry its own weight
It’s no secret that the number one problem for the Wildcats last year was their pitching. Arizona had no trouble swinging the bats last year, as the team ranked No. 3 in the country in batting average at .326 and No. 3 in the nation in total runs scored last season (548), according to the NCAA. The Wildcats struggled to close out games last year simply due to their ability to pitch in tight situations.
Arizona compiled a team ERA of 6.21 in 2019, good enough for No. 249 in the country. That stat will surely see an improvement, as Johnson added former Oregon State pitching coach and 2017 Assistant Coach of the Year Nate Yeskie to the coaching staff this past offseason. Yeskie spent 11 seasons with the Beavers and won an NCAA Championship in 2018. The new hire is already showing its significance, as senior pitcher Davis Vainer is anticipating an improvement to himself and the pitching staff.
“The hiring of Nate Yeskie, that was huge,” Vainer said. “He has the pedigree, an awesome track record and resume, so I think just picking his brain will definitely help me moving forward.”
The defense has to help out the pitching
Part of the reason for Arizona’s pitching being so poor last season was the defense behind them. The Wildcats threw away a ton of opportunities last year to get off the field by committing an error or two and extending the inning. Arizona was last in the conference in fielding percentage last year at .962 and surrendered the most errors in the Pac-12 with 79. The next highest was Washington State at 65.
Johnson believes the defense will be more reliable this season because of an increase in the number of players he has to choose from, something that his previous teams lacked.
“I think our depth has really increased each year,” Johnson said. “The year we went to Omaha, it was like, ‘Man, I hope someone doesn’t get hurt.’ I think we’re in a good spot. We have a little more experience.”
Consistency will define this team’s success
If you ask Johnson what the most important thing for returning to Omaha will be, he’ll tell you it’s consistency and fundamentals, and rightly so. Arizona had plenty of hot and cold streaks embedded into its 2019 season, enough for the NCAA selection committee to leave the Wildcats off the final tournament bracket. The team began the year 5-0 before dropping four of its next six games. They then put together a seven-game losing streak before finishing the final month of the season 14-1.
“Consistency. It’s not a rocket science-type deal,” Johnson said. “I think missing [the NCAA tournament] narrowly is a tough pill to swallow, and from the outside, you can go back and go like, ‘Hey, it was this game or that game.’ I could recite you a list of games last year. I think it just comes down to fundamentals.”
The Wildcats will begin the 2020 season at home on Feb. 14 at 6 p.m. against Albany.
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