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Arizona baseball: Wildcats pitching staff not built for immediate success under new coaching staff

The turnaround at Arizona will take time

Dave Lawn visits the mound at the Tony Gwynn Classic vs. Nebraska
Dave Lawn visits the mound at the Tony Gwynn Classic vs. Nebraska
Jason Bartel

Patience is a virtue.

Sometimes, the best things in life come out of the worst situations.

These, along with other sayings, describe the Arizona Wildcats' pitching situation perfectly.

With the coaching changes, Arizona brought in one of the best recruiters in head coach Jay Johnson, and according to people within the game, one of the best pitching coaches in Dave Lawn.

This combo will undoubtedly make the pitching staff a strong point of the Wildcats in the near future. But the keyword here is future.

Right now, Arizona's pitching staff is, in a word, underwhelming. This is the aftermath of the end of the Andy Lopez era. If you think back to the end of the Stoops era over on the football side of things, he left a bare cabinet on the defensive side of the football for Rich Rodriguez. In baseball's case, it was a bare cabinet in the bullpen.

There have been a couple of bright spots. Nathan Bannister has shined (especially at home). JC Cloney has thrived as the Friday night guy for the most part. Bobby Dalbec has looked really good in the majority of his appearances. Cody Deason, after getting let go by Oregon, has definitely been the best and most consistent freshman (a Johnson recruit).

But having a Bannister and Cloney 1-2 punch at the top of the weekend rotation definitely has its downside.

They're basically the same pitcher, just throwing from the opposite arm as one another.

"It is what it is for now," coach Lawn said of having that duo lead the way into Pac-12 series. "They're kind of the left-handed and right-handed versions of themselves in that they're mixing their pitches really well. If you're throwing that fastball on both sides of the plate, and you're commanding the other pitches, it's really tough to sit on something, so they've been able to do that and keep hitters off-balance."

"If they can get us into the sixth and seventh consistently, then we're always going to have a lot of ways to match up."

The problem is, even though the coaching staff says they have a lot of ways to match up, we haven't seen enough consistency this year to say that's the case.

"They're all going to pitch," Lawn continued. "Everyone has to pitch."

It also hurts that two veterans, Tyler Crawford and Tyger Talley, have been unable to pitch this year. Talley left the team before spring with chronic back issues, while Crawford has been rehabbing an arm injury he suffered the week before the season started. Coming out of fall practices, those are two guys the coaches were relying on to contribute heavily, Talley especially.

But now the lack of experience and overall stuff from the group is being exposed by Pac-12 hitters.

In conference play, Arizona's team ERA is 5.40. Only Washington State at 6.05 is worse through these first three weekends. The Wildcats also have the fewest strikeouts of any Pac-12 pitching staff, which is a product of having just one or two guys who can blow balls by hitters.

It used to be that going from the softer throwing Cloney and Bannister to a guy like Dalbec coming out of the pen would be the perfect combo, just because of that change in velocity and eye level the opposing hitters would have to deal with in late-inning situations.

Dalbec now starts, leaving the hard-throwing reliever role for a freshman like Austin Rubick, who has come on of late, but still loses command periodically.

"He's slowly but surely turning into what we want him to be," Johnson said of Rubick last week.

At 18-11, Arizona is exactly halfway through the season. There are exactly two pitchers with a sub-3 ERA (Cloney and Deason), and six pitchers with an ERA over six. In conference play, there are seven pitchers that have made more than one appearance with ERAs over six, including four in double digits.

While the Wildcats may have made a bit of a statement with their non-conference schedule, right now, this is not a pitching staff that can lead a team to success in Pac-12 play.

But that's ok. The offense will need to step up. The .277 average Arizona boasts in conference games ranks third among Pac-12 offenses. And that's with the heart of the order (Dalbec and JJ Matijevic) hitting .226 and .194 respectively.

Two years from now, the pitching staff is likely a strength for this program with the addition of many electric arms, including Roman Phansalkar. Right now? Well, that's just the hand that this coaching staff was dealt when they moved from Reno to Tucson.