Coming off a trip to the College World Series last season, expectations remained high for the Arizona baseball team despite the losses of some major key pieces from last year's team. Battling through some ups and downs, the Wildcats went 10-3 in non-conference play.
Here are some of my observations from the first 13 games of the season as Arizona enters Pac-12 play this weekend.
Three reliable starters in weekend series:
TJ Nichols, Garrett Irvin and Dawson Netz currently stand as the starters in each weekend series from Friday through Sunday.
After showing flashes of huge upside last season, Nichols has stepped up tremendously as a top of the rotation starter. Through three starts, he has posted a 1.08 ERA across 16.2 innings pitched to go along with 21 strikeouts to only five walks. He has pitched at least six innings in back-to-back starts and recorded at least six strikeouts in all three starts.
Irvin has posted a 2.87 ERA across 15.2 innings over three starts to go along with 10 strikeouts and seven walks. The high walk rate is quite unusual for Irvin, but he has still managed to hold his own on the mound as the typical Saturday starter for the Wildcats.
Netz has posted a 3.65 ERA across 12.1 innings over three starts to open this season. After tossing five shutout innings against Texas Tech University in his first start of the season, Netz has struggled a little more in his last two starts. Fortunately, the bullpen has been fully rested with Nichols and Irvin being able to go further in starts in the two games prior.
"The biggest thing I like this year is our weekend rotation," catcher Daniel Susac said. "I think every day they are giving us a chance to shut somebody out."
If Netz's recent struggles continue into conference play, Arizona has other options as part of a deep pitching staff. Anthony Susac has started two games, while Eric Orloff and Quinn Flanagan have each started one game. Chandler Murphy is also another potential starter once he returns from an arm injury that has sidelined him to start this year. Flanagan tossed five shutout innings in his lone start, while Anthony Susac worked over five innings in multiple starts with him pitching a lot better than what his final line would suggest.
Bullpen appears to be strong again:
The Wildcats bullpen was super solid in the run to the College World Series last season. After losing multiple key pieces from that core, this was one of the biggest question marks for the Wildcats entering this year. Through 13 games, Arizona's bullpen appears to be solid once again.
Holden Christian, the senior transfer from Loyola Marymount, has posted a 1.29 ERA across five appearances to go along with 10 strikeouts and two walks. He has converted his two save opportunities, while also pitching over one inning in three of his five appearances.
George Arias Jr. and Josh Randall lead the team with six appearances. Arias has posted a 2.57 ERA over 7.0 innings pitched. Randall hasn't had quite the same success so far, posting a 4.15 ERA over 8.2 innings.
Trevor Long has yet to allow a run over 5.2 innings in his five appearances. Orloff has made the one start as noted above, but also three appearances out of the bullpen. And for whatever reason, the defense has struggled with him on the mound as he has allowed four runs but all of them have been unearned. Chris Barraza has posted a 3.18 ERA across 5.2 innings over five appearances, while Jonathan Guardado has pitched in three games to the tune of a 2.25 ERA across 4.0 innings.
The stability of Tanner O'Tremba at the plate:
Daniel Susac was considered by everyone to be the best hitter in the Wildcats lineup entering this season, and while that is arguable, O'Tremba not only leads the team in just about every category to this point of the season, but he also finds himself towards the top of the entire conference in several major offensive categories.
Having collected multiple hits in eight of 13 games to open the season, O'Tremba will look to carry this elite production into conference play.
Freshman Tommy Splaine's bat and the versatility he offers:
Albeit a limited sample size, Splaine has made the most of his limited opportunities collecting four hits over 10 at-bats.
What makes the freshman most intriguing is the versatility he offers. Being listed as a pitcher, catcher and first baseman on the roster, Splaine has made an impact at each of those positions early on this season.
We saw Splaine make his first start at first base last weekend in place of Noah Turley, who committed five errors early in the season. Splaine looked comfortable, and it is likely he sees more time there moving forward if he keeps playing clean in the field. Arizona head coach Chip Hale has also mentioned the possibility in certain games of swapping Splaine and Daniel Susac in the late innings to give Daniel Susac a break behind the plate.
You also have the luxury of having Splaine as a weapon on the mound if a game goes deep into extra innings and Hale runs out of relievers in the bullpen.
Strikeouts at the plate:
The biggest struggle for the Wildcats at the plate has been strikeouts. Arizona has struck out 132 times as a team so far this season, the most in the conference by a significant margin.
The biggest Achilles heel for the Cats have been off-speed pitches.
Fielding needs to be consistent:
The second biggest struggle for Arizona has been in the field, committing the most errors (16) in the conference at this point in the season. I mentioned Turley above who leads the team with five errors, but he was recently moved to designated hitter with Splaine playing first base. We will see if that remains the game plan this weekend, but it is likely.
These errors have led to 17 unearned runs allowed by Arizona pitchers. These miscues did not hurt them too much in non-conference play, but as the Wildcats begin conference play, the Cats are going to have to clean up the play in the field to be successful.
Arizona opens up conference play against the University of California, Berkeley this weekend. The first pitch for game one on Friday is set for 6:05 pm MST.
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