The 2016 college baseball season gets underway Friday. For the first time in a while, the Arizona Wildcats will start the season on the road, travelling to Houston to take on the Rice Owls for three games, before playing a single game at Lamar on Monday.
Friday: 5 PM MT (LHP JC Cloney vs. LHP Blake Fox)
Saturday: 3 PM MT
Sunday: Noon MT
(Starting pitchers are TBA for both squads for the Saturday and Sunday games)
Last year, Rice came in to Tucson and took two of three, with Sunday's rubber match going to the 10th inning. You may remember that one win the Wildcats picked up against the Owls, since it was on a Kevin Newman walk-off steal of home.
The starting pitcher for Rice that day was Blake Fox, who is back for his senior season. Fox won his first 21 career collegiate decisions, and has a total record of 26-2 over his three years on the mound for the Owls. You would expect a guy with all of this success to have a lot of hype surrounding him, but that's just not the case. He's not on the Golden Spikes Award watch list. He wasn't drafted after his junior year. But he still gets it done for Rice.
On the Arizona side, they'll be relying on an unproven guy at the NCAA level on Friday when JC Cloney makes his first start as a Wildcat. In two years at College of the Canyons, Cloney went 14-7, posting an ERA in the mid-2s. He's an intimidating figure on the mound, standing at 6-foot-1 and weighing 226 pounds. It'll be interesting to see how his successful fall and spring practices translate to a game.
Rice lost the rest of their rotation from last year, which means Wayne Graham will have to rely on new faces the rest of the weekend as well. Graham, who is coaching his 25th season at Rice, has won 1,076 games in his career, so I believe he'll find his guy.
This of course is Jay Johnson's first weekend as the Arizona head coach. He has 72 career wins as Nevada's head coach. A bit of a difference there, huh?
A couple of important players in last year's Arizona/Rice series return for the Owls. Leadoff hitter Ryan Chandler is back for his sophomore campaign after batting .302 last year. Right fielder Charlie Warren is still there as well. Warren hit .311 in 2015. Hunter Copycinski will be catching for Rice, replacing Arizona killer John Clay Reeves. Copycinski hit .309 in 49 games last year.
With a left-hander on the mound on Friday, this is what I would expect Arizona's lineup to be close to:
- Justin Behnke, LF (L)
- Zach Gibbons, RF (R)
- Bobby Dalbec, 3B (R)
- JJ Matijevic, 2B (L)
- Jared Oliva, CF (R)
- Ryan Aguilar, 1B (L)
- Louis Boyd, SS (R)
- Cesar Salazar, C (L)
- DH (Sawyer Gieseke (R) or Cody Ramer (L))
There's not a lot of right-handed power bats on Arizona's roster this year, so finding a productive lineup against a left-handed pitcher will certainly be one of the bigger things the Wildcat coaching staff will need to figure out. The things I'm not confident in that projection are the Matijevic/Boyd/Ramer combo and where they'll lineup, and also if Ryan Haug will start over Salazar since Haug is a RHH.
Rice will throw a lot of left-handers. According to Coach Johnson, of the five returning pitchers from last year's team, four of them are left-handed.
It'll be an interesting weekend for sure, and a lot of questions will be answered by the time we get to Monday.