It was about this time last year when the Arizona baseball team was getting ready to enter conference play against Oregon State right as the season was shut down. It’ll have been exactly 665 days when the Wildcats face off against UCLA on Friday, March 19, since the team’s last conference game against Washington State on May 25, 2019. It has been a long time coming, and it’ll be the first Pac-12 game for the 2020 freshmen class as well as the transfers.
“It feels like it’s been so long,” junior outfielder Donta' Williams said. “Playing baseball since opening day, it feels like I haven’t played baseball in like five years even though I played in the summer, but it is just good to play again. It’s good to just be able to interact and get on the field with your guys and compete and go to work with them. Seeing the competitive spirits and bloods that comes out on the field, it is just a different kind of feel when we’re playing.”
After reeling off 10 straight wins following the opening series against Ball State, the Wildcats ran into some troubles this past weekend, splitting two games with Wichita State and Air Force. The same can be said for Arizona’s opponent this weekend as the Bruins have opened the season at 10-5 with series losses against San Francisco and Cal Poly after opening the year as a top-2 team by many outlets. That has been a relatively common trend so far this year in college baseball.
“I think the nature of baseball itself is different than basketball and football,” Arizona head coach Jay Johnson said. “Those are the two sports that probably get more attention than college baseball, but I think talent in those two sports is really going to be the separator in terms of who is going to win and who is going to lose. In baseball, you have one player, the pitcher, that has so much control over the game that the rest of your team can play an astounding game, but if that one guy does not, then you’re already at a competitive disadvantage.”
Johnson wants to make it clear that the game of baseball is different than any other major sport, and in that, you’re going to see different results than you might expect some nights.
“I just think the nature of baseball is different, and I think that is hard for a lot of people to get their head around," Johnson said. "You are going to see games that maybe the team that is not quite as talented will win if that one pitcher really stands out or if that other team plays better. We really just try to focus on the play. Again, very boring answer but over time, I think that will lend us to be successful, continue to be competitive, continue to be fundamental and continue to be very consistent in how we roll those things out. With our talent, we end up on the right side of things more often than not.”
This UCLA team is led by strong pitching, particularly Sean Mullen who has posted a 3-0 record over seven appearances (three starts) to the tune of a 1.23 ERA with 30 strikeouts to five walks, as well as Jesse Bergin who has posted a 3-1 record over four starts with a 2.18 ERA with 22 strikeouts to just five walks. There is a lot of firepower in this whole pitching staff as they lead the conference in strikeouts with 156.
One player Johnson noted that has stood out to him in the Bruins lineup is leadoff hitter Kevin Kendall, who is currently hitting .364 with nine RBI’s and eight stolen bases (on 10 attempts).
“Their leadoff hitter and center fielder [Kendall], I think, is a great player,” Johnson said. “He is one of the most underrated players in the Pac-12 in my opinion. He doesn’t get talked about a whole lot.”
It has been a lot of the same type of offense we have been accustomed to on offense for the Wildcats. As a team, they currently lead the conference in batting average (.323), walks (112), doubles (35), hits (181) and runs scored (149).
They have been led by sophomores Branden Boissiere and Ryan Holgate, who currently find themselves atop the leaderboard in hits among Pac-12 players at 27 hits for Boissiere and 25 hits for Holgate. Boissiere also leads the conference in hitting with a .458 batting average through 59 at-bats so far this season.
“They’re both obviously both great players,” Williams said. “It is hard to argue that, but I think their headspace and you know where they are going to and how they are improving our team, it doesn’t get shown enough.”
Johnson has been really impressed with the maturity and growth he has seen from Holgate and Boissiere during their time at Arizona.
“I think they both have matured well,” Johnson said. “I think when you mentioned offense right now, the thing that I am most pleased with is the improvement of each individual player in our program. I think if you look at them, every guy is better than they were a year ago or maybe two years ago or even three years ago in some cases with some of the older players. I think [Holgate] and [Boissiere] really define that. I think they have always had ability with bat speed, power, ability to drive the ball, and we saw that early on because they both got significant time as freshmen. … I think they are developing at a rate that I am very pleased with and they’ve been a big part of our success thus far, and I think they will be as we continue this season as well.”
On the mound, one of the more confusing situations for some Wildcat fans has been the start of the year for junior Garrett Irvin. After being held to just 1.2 innings and 30 pitches in his first start of the season against Ball State, it was later noted by both Johnson and Irvin himself that the left-hander had been dealing with some soreness in his shoulder entering the season, and the plan heading into his first start of the year was always to keep him at a strict pitch count.
In his four starts to begin the year, Irvin has ramped up his pitch count each time out onto the field, most recently throwing a season-high 82 pitches against Air Force as he pitched into the sixth inning for the first time all season.
“I would say it has improved with each game,” Irvin said on his comfortability level on the mound. “They kind of had me on a unique schedule where I started at 20 pitches, and then I progressed 15 [pitches] each week. With each week and just being able to go out there an inning or two more than the previous week, I think that helped [me] kind of get comfortable and find what worked for me again just because I did have to take a couple of weeks off for discomfort in my arm. Other than that, I am starting to feel really good and comfortable again, and I am pretty excited.”
Irvin is one of the many Wildcats who will be partaking in his first Pac-12 game this weekend. He understands that after what happened last season, you can’t take any game for granted.
“This time last year was when our season got cancelled and that was right before Oregon State,” Irvin said. “We are all very excited, especially myself and the other transfers and freshman that we’re getting ready to play Pac-12 baseball, so this week is very important to us, and it puts it into perspective because we can’t take anything for granted. We are very excited to just play any Pac-12 team at this point but especially UCLA.”
The Wildcats will open up this weekend’s three-game series on Friday at 6 p.m. MST before they stay in Southern California for one more day to play Loyola Marymount on Monday, March 22.
“I know I’m extremely excited about this weekend, and I’m sure our players are as well,” Johnson said. “This will be a great weekend. We love playing out there, and we’re really looking forward to it.”
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