The Arizona baseball team kicks off their season next week, and spirits remain high coming off of what was close to a year-long layoff for the team.
“Baseball is the love of our life to every player on the team, so it’s good to finally see that light coming closer,” junior outfielder Donta' Williams said. “Being on the field with each of the players and just having those talks of competing against another team to being closer as a team and getting to the end goal. So I mean it’s a dream come true, I guess you could say that.”
It was uncertain times for everyone when the 2020 season was first shut down, and it was no different for head coach Jay Johnson who took the first couple of weeks to reflect before getting right back to work.
“Those first couple of weeks, there was a lot of like, ‘What’s going on right now,’ almost like a part of you was dead. So once I got past that part of it, there was a lot of reflection,” Johnson said. “I watched every pitch of every game that we played last year to try and help our players that were returning, put them in a better position to be successful this year and really identify what those players need to do to be the best that they can be to make a positive contribution to our team. And I feel really good about that with our returning players.”
The hitting has been the staple of the team in recent years, and that was no different for Arizona last year in the limited amount of games that were played as they finished top-2 among Pac-12 teams in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs scored and home runs. This comes after they led the conference in batting average, hits, triples, slugging percentage and on-base percentage during the 2019 season.
“I just say the versatility of the lineup,” sophomore Branden Boissiere said in regards to what makes Arizona’s lineup so tough to pitch to. “We have a lot of guys with power, as well as speed. We work really hard with two strike hitting in practice and in training, so I think just our vision at the plate and different things like that make us very hard to pitch to, and also just our skill sets. I feel like we’re very elite when it comes to putting the barrel on the ball.”
It is not just about the power with this lineup, but also the speed as Boissiere noted. The Wildcats led the conference in stolen bases — with 20 — last year despite playing fewer games than most other teams in the Pac-12. They were led by six steals from sophomore infielder Jacob Blas with another five other players chipping in two steals each. This is one of the major causes of the high on-base percentage for the team, which only leads to more runs scored.
“Another thing is just like the small ball aspect as well,” Boissiere said. “We get a runner to first base, we move him over, and then we score him from second base. So just little things like that, I think we’ve gotten really good at and will continue to get better at.”
Arizona had six different hitters finish last year with a batting average of .322 or higher, not including sophomore utility player Kobe Kato who hit .333 over just six at-bats. The Wildcats are expected to get the majority of that same team back this year, along with an exciting freshman class that was highly regarded by many major outlets.
“You can’t understate it,” Johnson said. “You know when this all went down, there were a lot of things that we didn’t know what were going to be like. You know, is there going to be another year of eligibility? How long is the draft? So, constructing the roster, there was a lot of questions for a long period of time.”
When Johnson finally received the notice on all of the specifics regarding an extra year of eligibility and the shortened MLB draft, he immediately hammered home his expectations with a number of his returning players in what they could be expecting moving forward with a much different offseason than what they were used to.
“When we finally got some clarity on that, I went pretty hard at guys like [Williams], [Blas], Vince [Vannelle], Preston [Price]. I mean we were on the phone a couple times a week laying out what the situation could look like for them based on everything that had happened," Johnson said. "I just personally gave them my commitment that we were going to do everything that we could to put them in a position to be successful, to achieve the things they want to after here and it goes without saying, those guys are very meaningful to our team, both from a performance standpoint, leadership standpoint and all of those intangibles things.”
As we look forward to the 2021 season and what to expect from this Arizona team, it is very possible that a number of freshmen will play immediate roles. This class is led by Jacob Berry out of Queen Creek High School in Arizona, who is listed as both a first and third baseman.
“I’d say Jacob Berry,” Boissiere said when asked what newcomers have stood out to him. “I think he has made tremendous strides already at Arizona, especially with his swing and defense. I think he could be a really big contribution to the team this year and help us win.”
Berry was picked by D1Baseball as the preseason Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, and Johnson expects him to be a big part of the team this year and for the future.
“[Berry] is a really talented player,” Johnson said. “He is a switch-hitter, and that is a difficult task for anybody. He is probably as good as anybody I’ve seen, relative to being the same both as a right-handed hitter and as a left-handed hitter. I think that’s tremendous value for our team. He is much better defensively than maybe I had anticipated coming in with really solid hitting skills.”
Johnson noted that he believes this year’s pitching staff has really been able to challenge the freshman in a positive way.
“I think this pitching staff that we have will prepare all of the freshmen to have a chance of being successful once they get into the game,” Johnson said. “Now, once they get into the game, the whole key is just to be able to keep things slow and stay in your routine and stay in your process.”
One other freshman who could make an immediate impact as a position player is catcher Daniel Susac out of Jesuit High School in Roseville, California, who could make an immediate impact behind the plate for the Wildcats.
“Daniel Susac, a guy that is praised a lot, I feel like he knows how to control the game,” Williams said. “He has matured a lot from when he first stepped foot on the campus, so I feel like he’s a great guy who could hold that position and do the right things on the field and off the field.”
Johnson noted that the minimum requirements in the Pac-12 to be able to field a team this year is two full-time catchers, eight pitchers and 10 additional positional players. He made it clear that he is going to do whatever it takes to play as many games as possible.
“If we have an issue with an opponent, let’s say in week three or four that opponent can’t play and then somewhere in the ACC, Louisville and Miami get canceled because of some issue with Miami, we’re going to try and play Louisville,” Johnson said. “That’s how I’m going to approach it, and we have a lot of support from our administration who’ve been big in getting us to this point, but we’re going to get on the field as much as we possibly can.”
It is exciting times for the Wildcat players and Arizona fans as this is quite possibly the deepest team we’ve seen with all the returning players and high-profile freshman, and all that’s left to do now is to play ball.
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