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Arizona baseball: Justin Behnke faces a familiar foe vs. USC

Justin Behnke will get to see one of his former coaches this weekend when USC comes to town.

Jason Bartel

One of the big reasons for Arizona's success on the diamond this year has been the addition of Junior College transfer Justin Behnke.

Behnke has started every game this season in center field for the Cats. But he hasn't been an outfielder for very long.

"I've only played outfield for two years," Behnke told me on Tuesday.

And the guy who taught him how to play outfield? The now-USC volunteer assistant coach Chris Duffy.

"He's the one who got me ready for here, and he's the one who got me here."

Duffy was drafted in the eighth round of the 2001 MLB Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He made his MLB debut with that organization in April of 2005, and finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting that year.

Behnke and Duffy were together at South Mountain Community College the past two seasons, the place where Duffy played in 1999 and 2000 before transferring to ASU. South Mountain won the Division-1 Region Championship last season, and was in the Championship Series two years ago.

But this year has been different for Behnke, playing at the D-1 NCAA level.

"It's been a lot of fun, coming to a place like this and playing in front of a big crowd," he said.

Duffy was the outfield, hitters and base-running coach at South Mountain, the three things Behnke certainly excels in at Arizona this year. The junior center fielder is currently third on the team in hitting with a .352 batting average and stolen bases with seven.

He's also tied for the team lead in walks with 16.

"Behnke does a great job of working the count and fighting off pitches," head coach Andy Lopez stated. "He turns three-pitch at bats into a fourteen-pitch at bat with foul ball after foul ball. That wears on a pitcher, so he does a great job."

"(Being patient) is something I've always done," Behnke added. "Taking pitches for me, I'll get walked a lot and getting on base is big."

That persistence at the bottom of the lineup has been crucial for the nation's best offense, as Behnke sets the table for Scott Kingery and Kevin Newman.

" If I get on base, they're hitting almost .500, so the odds of them hitting me around are pretty high."

"It's crucial only from the standpoint in that it's like we have two lead-off hitters," Lopez continued. "And he has a tendency to get on base a lot, and now you have Kingery and Newman working with a guy in scoring position because he can also steal second base."

"I like it," Behnke said of hitting in the nine-spot. "Other than one, that's where I feel most comfortable in the lineup."

Behnke is just one of five outfielders that Chris Duffy coached at South Mountain to receiver NCAA D-1 scholarship offers. So there are a lot of guys the former Major Leaguer has to keep up with. But Duffy and Behnke still talk every once in a while.

"We have a little bit of communication, but not too much," Behnke said of their current relationship. "So it'll be nice to get back with him and talk and catch up."

"It'll be fun playing in front of him again."

Then next weekend, Behnke gets to go home and play at ASU. Before South Mountain, he went to Dobson HS in Mesa.

A lot of familiar faces for Justin to impress over the next two weeks.