The Arizona baseball team picked up its first conference series win of the season this past weekend, taking two of three games from Oregon, while freshman catcher Daniel Susac took home Pac-12 Baseball Player of the Week.
Susac hit .556 with 10 hits, four home runs, 10 RBIs and six runs scored in four games last week dating back to the game against Loyola Marymount on Monday, March 22. It is not just about Susac’s ability as a hitter at the plate but also his talent on the defensive side of the game behind the plate, logging 29 putouts without committing an error in all four games behind the plate.
The freshman duo of Susac and Jacob Berry continue to help out an Arizona offense that ranks top-10 in the nation in runs (first), hits (first), on-base percentage (third), batting average (fifth) and slugging percentage (10th).
Berry is currently not only leading the team in hitting (.449) and RBIs (31) but is also leading the whole conference in both of those categories as well. Berry picked up another nine hits this past weekend and is currently riding an eight-game hitting streak.
“I am very impressed with him,” Johnson said. “I don’t get into the comparison thing, because it doesn’t have anything to do with getting better. I mean the results speak for themselves. I look at things a little differently too. I thought Sunday, I don’t know how many hits he had Sunday, [but] it was one of his most impressive days. Oregon made some pitches and got him to two strikes a few times, but how he stayed in those at-bats and fighting off some tough pitches and then the second there was a little crack or a mistake, it was a double. I think that is a sign of a great hitter, so to answer your question, he is definitely on a track of being one of the best hitters on our team, and I think this is a really good team."
Johnson went on to add how much Berry has impressed not just him but also opposing coaches that have seen the freshman hit in-person this season.
“I know he has impressed opposing coaches,” Johnson said. “I have heard from them a lot relative to him, but we just have to focus on getting better and taking quality at-bats. I’m very impressed with his maturity and his poise and his just ability to focus on his task which, right now, is taking quality at-bats.”
The hitting has been the talk of the team so far this season, and for good reason, but the Wildcats saw some solid performances on the mound from the whole pitching staff in Friday and Saturday’s wins.
Chase Silseth opened up the Oregon series with another really impressive appearance for Arizona, tossing 6.2 innings of one run ball on just three hits with 11 strikeouts to just two walks.
“Consistency, a great competitor and a great leader for our team,” senior reliever Vince Vannelle said on the impact Silseth has had on the team so far this season. “I mean you see it every Friday out there. He goes out and competes till the very end, and honestly, it is just a great way to start off a series, and I wouldn’t want anyone else to start out our series on a Friday night.”
The Wildcats saw a scare late in the game when Vannelle entered the game in the ninth inning and served up a three-run home run which cut the lead to 5-4, but the senior was able to keep his composure and get the next three hitters out to finish the job as Arizona took game one of the series.
“Coach Johnson always preaches to us about the next pitch, next pitch. And as a closer, you have to have a really short mindset because a lot can change in two to three pitches. I mean coach [Nate Yeskie] always comes back and says to us, like imagine if you could go back through your past season or past games and change three pitches to go in your favor. How much different could that be? And so, I kind of view it as a positive mindset. I mean obviously, you’re not going out there trying to give up home runs, but at the end of the day, it is a learning opportunity," Vannelle said.
The Wildcats blew the Ducks out of the water in Saturday’s 15-2 win, which included a three-hit performance from sophomore Tanner O’Tremba, who was inserted into the starting lineup this past weekend after not seeing too much playing time the rest of the season.
“We recruited [O’Tremba] because he is a very good player,” Johnson said. “I think a couple little history things on that is when he committed to Texas Tech, I immediately kind of had this feeling in the pit of my stomach, like man, we should have gone after this guy harder. It shouldn’t have mattered what our outfield situation looked like at that time, which you know it has been good for years, which is kind of maybe the reason why we weren’t as aggressive. Then, he was in the transfer portal for all but nine seconds before I shot him an email, got his phone number and gave him a call."
O’Tremba knew coming to Arizona that outfield was a deep position for Arizona and that he might not get to see the field immediately. Johnson really noticed what kind of teammate he has been and really took note of O'Tremba still coming to Arizona despite knowing how crowded the outfield was on the depth chart.
“I think the other thing that really stands out about [O’Tremba] is he knew coming in that we had good players,” Johnson said. “Donta [Williams], Mac [Bingham], Ryan [Holgate], and it didn’t dissuade him for a second, so I think that tells you a lot about his confidence.”
O’Tremba stated himself that he knew right when he joined the Wildcats that he might not get to see a lot of playing time immediately, but he knew everyone on the team wanted to play.
“I think as baseball players, we all want to play,” O’Tremba said. “I think everyone wants to see their name called and be on the field, but I think when you have a great group of guys around you, it is pretty easy to keep a positive mindset. I mean, you’re cheering for the guys on the field because you want to go to war with them one day, and I think that’s just the biggest thing is being positive can be easy when you’re surrounded by others who are positive that also want to work hard, even when they aren’t getting opportunities as well.”
The 13-18 loss that the Wildcats suffered in the series finale on Sunday was not how Arizona wanted to finish the series, and Johnson noted that confidence with some of the pitchers might have played a role in that loss.
“I think confidence is a feeling, and something we’ve been talking about is focusing on action,” Johnson said. “Some of them need to take action towards improvement, so that is kind of the message going into this week. We had a brief meeting the other day and covered Sunday’s game and showed them how just a few pitches maybe swung at-bats in the opponent's favor where if we executed a little bit better, then it would have maybe turned it in our pitcher and our team’s favor.”
One of the focuses Johnson put in place this week to the pitchers who were on the mound in Sunday’s loss was to see where everything went wrong and plan accordingly before they all pitch next.
“I wanted the guys who pitched Sunday to meet with coach Yeskie and develop an action plan for the next couple of days of what they can do Tuesday, Wednesday, pre-game Thursday to put them in a better position next time that they go out, and so that is really where we put our focus,” Johnson said.
As the baseball team looks ahead to what is next for the team, they will travel up to Tempe to take on Arizona State for three games, beginning on Thursday, April 1 through Saturday, April 3 before heading back home to Tucson for one game at Hi Corbett Field against the Sun Devils that following Tuesday, April 6.
Despite losing a few of their top pitchers to season-ending injuries, the Sun Devils pitching staff has remained strong as they currently rank second in the conference in team ERA. Johnson gave credit to the depth of the Arizona State pitching staff.
“It is an interesting case study to lose Erik Tolman, Cooper Benson and Boyd Vander Kooi to Tommy John surgery in the span of 10 days. You know that is a blow,” Johnson said. “I commend their pitchers for stepping into those roles and throwing strikes and being competitive. That is what it is about. I mean sometimes it just takes the opportunity for somebody, and some of those guys have taken advantage of that opportunity.”
Johnson tried to downplay this series against Arizona State, stating that he views every opponent as the same, but the rivalry between both teams is something that can be tough to ignore.
“Every weekend is the same,” Johnson said. “You know you’re going to have to play good to win against all 10 other opponents, but I think it is such a unique rivalry in college baseball when you look at the history and tradition of both programs relative to on-the-field success, future Major League players and the energy that both schools get behind baseball. I think we have two of the top-three fan bases in the Pac-12 with both of these places, and it makes it really exciting.”
Johnson looked back to the first time he played the Sun Devils as the Arizona coach and remembered some of his favorite moments from this rivalry during his time with the Wildcats.
“I remember the first year we played them five times and had that series at home and having 8,000 people here, it was like, this is awesome,” Johnson said. “It would be great if this was what every weekend in college baseball looked like.”
Johnson noted how important it is to have a big crowd when the Wildcats come back for the one game against Arizona State at home next Tuesday.
“Huge,” Johnson said. “I mean the energy in the ballpark. I don’t even know how many fans we had this weekend, but when we got it rollin’ in Friday, Saturday and even Sunday’s game a little bit. Even though it was back-and-forth offensive game, it felt great to feel like there was a home-field advantage and there was people in the ballpark. This is the opponent that they tend to turn out for the most.”
The Wildcats will open up against Arizona State in Tempe on Thursday, April 1 with the first pitch scheduled for 6 p.m. MST.
“We’re looking forward to this series,” Johnson said. “I know our players are. I think when you look back at the [COVID-19] thing, you know there were a few things that were really disappointing about that and not getting to play them at home last year with the types of teams that both of us had. That was disappointing, so I am sure players and coaches on both sides will be really excited for the weekend.
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