After opening up the 2021 college baseball season with eight consecutive games at Hi Corbett Field, the Arizona baseball team will embark on its first road trip of the season as they head to Texas for the Frisco College Baseball Classic.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic still in play, the players and coaches will have to follow strict guidelines on the road this season. The team will take two different buses everywhere they go, to the Tucson airport, hotel when they arrive in Texas as well as the Dr. Pepper Ballpark where the games will take place. The Wildcats are willing to do whatever it takes to be able to play baseball senior Quinn Flanagan said in a press conference on Tuesday, March 2.
“We’re not to really leave the hotel,” Flanagan said. “We’re kind of confined in that space, which I think as a team we’re totally fine with. You know we’re there to play baseball and at the end of the day, that’s what we’re there to do. We’re going to do whatever it takes to stay on that field and whatever that means, that’s what we’ll do.”
After spending the last two seasons primarily in the starting rotation, Flanagan has transitioned to more of a long relief role to start off this season with both of his appearances coming out of the bullpen. Flanagan said he talked to head coach Jay Johnson and pitching coach Nate Yeskie before the season about this new role and is willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win.
“That first weekend, I had an idea that [Garrett Irvin] wasn’t going to be able to be extended that far so I was going to come in relief behind him,” Flanagan said. “I had an idea that that was what I was going to do the following weekend, and then the day before, coach Johnson came up to me and kind of explained that I was going to be used more in the end of the game, back innings type deal so I was ready for that one when it happened.”
That type of role was shown firsthand last Saturday in the Wildcats' come-from-behind 4-3 victory over Southeastern Louisiana. Flanagan entered the game in the eighth inning, right after Arizona rallied and scored four runs in the previous half-inning to take the lead after trailing all game and picking up a huge two-inning save where he allowed just one hit and one walk with four strikeouts. It is those types of moments where Johnson knows he can rely on Flanagan to enter the game in tight situations and make a big pitch.
“I have all of the confidence in the world wherever we place him,” Johnson said. “Looking at the previous two days and then one of the games against Ball State, I just believe those last nine outs are the most difficult to get in a college baseball game and so I set up Saturday being that we haven’t used him yet. He was going to be the pitcher in the game if we were tied or had the lead after the seventh inning because he has great composure, he was throwing strikes and has great pitch ability. That was a very valuable win for our team on Saturday.”
Flanagan has not been the only stud reliever for Arizona so far this season as seniors Preston Price and Vince Vannelle have combined to throw 10.2 shutout innings, while sophomore transfer Chase Silseth and freshman TJ Nichols have each thrown two quality starts so far this season. After struggling on the mound as a team in recent years, having those two anchors in the starting rotation and bullpen really gives Johnson a lot of flexibility with the pitching staff as well as keeping the team in almost any type of game.
“I think it has been important,” Johnson said. “I think when you get a couple of quality starts a weekend like both of those guys have provided us, and you have stable guys in the back-end of the game, what it does is allows you to be in every game that we play. We have a very good team offensively and if we’re in every game that we play, we’re always going to have that crack or that one inning something goes our way. We get to catch a break, get a couple good at-bats in a row and it puts you in position to win. That is why the pitching staff is so important. I think the longer we go, the more we’re going to have those pieces in order.”
On the other side of the ball, Arizona saw an offensive explosion overall in this past weekend’s four-game sweep of Southeastern Louisiana that included two games with 13 or more runs. The Wildcats were led by first baseman Branden Boissiere, who was recently named Pac-12 Player of the Week after hitting .650 over the last five games with two home runs and eight RBI’s.
“I would say for me it is just sticking to my approach and doing my thing in the box,” Boissiere said. “I have been working really hard in the offseason, as well as in the spring, so I think it is starting to come together and I've just really been working on my vision at the plate as well. Getting my foot down in time to see the ball and it's really been beneficial for me."
It has not just been at the plate, but also on the field as Boissiere has transitioned from more of a utility player to strictly the team's primary first baseman. He has been making some slick plays on the field and says he looks up to Atlanta Braves first baseman and 2020 MLB National League MVP Freddie Freeman and tries to emulate his game after him.
"I just like how he takes tough at-bats," Boissiere said. "I feel like he is a very tough out and I feel like that's how it is for me too. His swing is kind of inside-out; he shoots the gaps really well and I feel like that's what I do well in my game too."
As a former pitcher before he came to Tucson, Boissiere has shown an ability at the plate to be able to read certain pitchers and Flanagan was quick to talk about why he believes Boissiere is such a tough out at the plate when they go up against each other in practice.
"It is definitely nice not having to face him every single day anymore," Flanagan said. "I think he is just a very mature hitter and I think talentwise, he is very talented. I think he kind of thinks along with you as a pitcher. There is not a whole lot that is going to fool him and he is going to get a good swing off of a lot of pitches."
Silseth will get the start on Thursday against Oklahoma. The transfer from the College of Southern Nevada has thrown two solid starts so far this season going 2-0 with a 2.92 ERA and 17 strikeouts to just four walks.
Johnson said he expects the rotation to remain the same the rest of the weekend, meaning we should once again see Chandler Murphy, Irvin and Nichols in the other three games.
The first game of the Frisco College Baseball Classic for the Wildcats kicks off on Thursday, March 4, against Oklahoma before Arizona once again takes on the Sooners on Friday followed by games against Dallas Baptist and Missouri over the weekend.
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