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Arizona baseball faces big challenge ahead against Oregon

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Griffin Riley | The Daily Wildcat

Cameron Cannon slides into home plate on April 30, in Tucson, Ariz.

The Arizona baseball team will host the Oregon Ducks in a three-game series this weekend at Hi Corbett Field. The Ducks are ranked as high as No. 13 in the country according to Baseball America and Perfect Game. They rank No. 16 or higher in all six polls while the Wildcats rank as high as No. 21 in the country according to Baseball America. 

“It will be [a] hard-fought series,” Arizona head coach Jay Johnson said. “When I look at the Pac-12 play, I look at 10 weekends of equal challenge, to be honest with you. There may be some guys you match up better or worse against. … I don’t really get caught up in the opponent other than the things we need to do that may be a little different. Some teams will bunt more, some teams will swing freely, some teams will pitch you a certain way, but they’re off to a good start and hats off to them.”

Johnson noted that there is a lot of familiarity in this series as he has seen a good amount of Oregon’s players over the last few seasons. 

“I mean honestly it is the same roster that we played, really, in 2019 and 2018 in terms of familiar characters at the top of the order and then the pitching staff,” Johnson said. “I mean we faced [Cullen Kafka] twice and we faced Robert Ahlstrom, some of their relievers … so all of those guys are really familiar. Sam Novitske is a really good player. They are a good team. They have a lot of 22-year-olds and 23-year-olds on their team, and they’re great athletes. I think the thing that stands out to me about Oregon is they are playing exceptional defense right now. I mean I’ve never seen, whatever 15 games into the schedule, a .994 fielding percentage. I’ve never seen that in my life of coaching college baseball, so [I'm] looking forward to a good weekend of competition. I know our players are as well.”

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The Ducks boast a .995 fielding percentage and have committed just three errors in 552 chances. They have put together streaks of 62 innings and 44 innings without committing an error, and they are currently on a 16-inning errorless streak. Johnson does not believe that facing a stout defensive team changes the way you approach each at-bat.

“I think what it does is it magnifies that you have to be on it, and what I mean by that is no pitch in an individual at-bat is inconsequential when you’re on offense and the readiness of the hitter and the base runner at that time is really important,” Johnson said. “On defense, it is the same thing. You know you want to make them earn everything they get and their team obviously has done a really good job of that, and that is why they have had some early success against good teams.”

One notable player in the Oregon batting order is designated hitter Kenyon Yovan, who is currently hitting .436 with six home runs and 16 RBIs in 39 at-bats so far this year. Yovan began his collegiate career as a pitcher, but a season-ending injury at the beginning of the 2019 season forced him to change positions. He earned National Player of the Week honors by D1Baseball, Collegiate Baseball and Perfect Game after a sweep of then-No. 15 UC Santa Barbara that saw him rack up 11 RBI’s and four home runs in a four-game series.

Arizona is coming off a series loss against UCLA that saw them lose two of three games before demolishing Loyola Marymount 18-2 on Monday. In that game against LMU, the freshman duo of Jacob Berry and Daniel Susac combined to hit four home runs with eight RBIs. Johnson noted that he likes the progression he has seen from the two freshmen from the beginning of the season to now.

RELATED: Three key stats in Arizona baseball's dominant victory over Loyola Marymount

“They’re both incredibly talented players,” Johnson said. “I think they have to be two of the better freshman players in college baseball. That is not a surprise because we knew they were talented when they came in. Honestly, I think it was just a matter of getting some games and at-bats underneath their belt. And by doing that, they realized that it is baseball and ... you take it one pitch at a time. I think the thing I like about both [Berry] and [Susac] is they have a lot of confidence in themselves, and I think that is a big-time separator with young players. Some want to do it before they really believe they can do it. These guys showed up believing that they can do it, so it became about getting experience and settling into the season, and both of them have done a really nice job of that.”

Berry enjoyed a very nice weekend at the plate, not just against LMU but also in the UCLA series where he combined to rack up eight hits and seven RBIs in four games.

“I feel like this weekend, I had a good weekend against UCLA and then against LMU,” Berry said. “I felt like I was just trying to slow the game down, take one at-bat at a time and not think ahead or behind, not think about the past or anything, just focusing on that at-bat and that pitch. So I think that is what really helped me this past weekend.”

It has not just been at the plate for Berry, but also on the field at third base. He has gone 11-straight games without committing an error, which is an impressive streak for a freshman at the hot corner. 

“I think he is a good defender,” Johnson said. “I thought he defended well in the fall. I thought he started a good double play in the ninth inning on Sunday against UCLA due to some lineup construction stuff, and he played errorless baseball I believe in Frisco for three straight days, so I think it is just a matter of time. When you’re making that lineup, there is a lot of things that go into it, both where you place guys in the batter order and defensive positioning. … I think he handles that position great, and I think you’ll see him there a lot this year as the season goes along still.” 

One aspect of the team Johnson gave credit to was the pitching staff, noting that he sees a lot of future professional pitchers on the team right now.

“We’ve brought in really talented pitchers to this program right now,” Johnson said. “I think several of them will be professional pitchers. I think there’s professional pitchers that haven’t thrown one inning for us this year, so I really am looking forward to seeing their development arc as we get through the season. I think they care about winning. I think they prioritize it, and I think it is important to them. So I’ve learned all of those things and I’m very happy about that and looking forward to competing with them through a really fun stretch of baseball coming up here these next couple of weeks.”

Junior Jonathan Guardado is a pitcher Wildcat fans had not seen in a while due to an injury, but he made his season debut on Monday against LMU where he threw one shutout inning.

“He is finally healthy is basically the answer to that question,” Johnson said. “He did not pitch in the fall. He was not going to be able to pitch last year and is back to health. We had put him out a few times in simulated games and controlled intersquads the last few weeks and felt like he was at a point to where he could get in there and contribute, and we wanted to basically see what we had in a game situation.”

One other pitcher who saw the mound in Monday’s win is freshman Trevor Long, who was once the No. 1 ranked outfielder in the state of Arizona for the class of 2020 according to Perfect Game and is now pitching for the Wildcats. 

RELATED: Arizona baseball drops two of three in opening series of Pac-12 play against UCLA

“I would say junior year, I was playing for the scout team for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and I got on the mound and  [Johnson] was there watching,” Long said. “He saw that I had a lot of potential on the mound there. He contacted me after the game talking about it, and when I got here with a lot of players returning in the field, he said that this would be a good year to use Nate Yeskie’s knowledge, use the older guy’s knowledge and really build on my pitching potential and that aspect of the game. That is basically how I got to where I am today and how I am pitching right now.”

Long mentioned that he grew up loving to pitch and openly embraced the idea of pitching for Arizona.

“I would say I was openly embracing it. I’ve always loved pitching. It’s been kind of a part of my life since I started playing baseball. I have constantly looked up to pitchers in the MLB. When I got the chance to come out here and pitch, it just made me really excited to see what I could do.”

Long likes the progression he has seen from himself since the start of the season, noting that he has learned so much from the older players on the pitching staff.

“I feel like I’m progressing very well,” Long said. “Since the very first week of the season, all of the older guys have really embraced me. I mean, I think I learned something from each guy, and we have one of the best pitching coaches in the country, if not the best, so he has really kind of created a new sense of pitching for me. I’ve learned things from him that I had never heard before, and they’ve really transformed my game.”

One of the most common themes that Johnson brings up at his press conferences every week is openly facing challenges and learning from them. 

“I think this is a game people will tell you is designed around failure, and a lot of people look at it that way,” Johnson said. “For me, I look at it as designed around opportunity. And what I mean by that is the opportunity to become the best you can possibly become. That only happens when you’re facing elite competition, and at Arizona, we’re going to face elite competition. I think what’s great about the Pac-12 is everybody can have a good and successful baseball program."

The Wildcats will have their hands full this weekend against the Ducks. The first game of this series is scheduled for Friday, March 26, with the first pitch scheduled for 7 p.m. MST.


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