Alfonso Rivas won’t be winning track meets for the Arizona Wildcats anytime soon.
The sophomore’s lack of speed has been the butt of many jokes in the past.
"He's really slow," sophomore pitcher Cody Deason said of Rivas after a walk-off win against UCLA last year. "Don't trust those little legs, alright. They might be dancing good up on the dance floor, but they're slow on the field."
So it might have been a little surprising that Rivas primarily played left field his freshman season, especially in a park as big as Hi Corbett.
But heading into his sophomore campaign, he might have found his true calling at first base.
“It didn’t really catch me by surprise,” he explained of when head coach Jay Johnson decided to move him to first in the fall. “As I saw the people that were coming in this year — they’re very athletic guys, faster — I sort of knew that I need to be open about going to another position, and luckily for me first base was open and I’ve been working really hard this fall just to learn it and it’s been going well.”
However, Rivas doesn’t exactly have much experience at the position. He says he played a couple games there his senior year at La Jolla Country Day HS in San Diego, but those were the only instances since he was ten years old.
“The hardest thing is probably picking the balls,” Rivas said of the biggest challenge he has playing the new position. “Luckily, Coach (Sergio) Brown has been really patient with us and getting us extra work in, which has helped a lot.”
What’s interesting about Arizona’s infield is that even though it’s likely that two freshmen will be starting opening day, the actual defensive skill is much higher this year as opposed to last. Cameron Cannon at second and Nick Quintana at third is going to be one of the top infields in the conference for the next three years.
“It makes me want to work even harder,” said Rivas about having that talent around him. “Not being an infielder primarily and seeing how talented they are and how easy they make it seem, it just wants to make me work harder to get to their level.”
“When you talk about the infielders of Nick and Cameron and Shane Martinez and obviously Louis Boyd, Kyle Lewis, all those guys played shortstop in high school,” coach Johnson added. “And that’s the toughest one to play, so it’s easier to transition from short to third or short to second or short to first. All of them are really strong and they play low to the ground really well, which you have to do with this fast infield.”
There’s also a lot of competition at first base itself, with guys like JJ Matijevic, Sawyer Gieseke, and Cory Voss all vying for playing time. In the fall, Randy Labaut was there as well, but now he’s primarily a pitcher and a left-handed DH.
“It makes all of us work harder,” Rivas continued about the competition at the position. “Every time we’re taking drills or doing whatever at first base, it’s like a competition there. You’re fighting for your job every single day and everyone knows it.”
All that hard work has given Rivas a lot of confidence at the position as spring practice began in earnest on Friday.
“I feel really comfortable there now,” he explained. “It’s felt like I’ve been playing there for years now, but there’s some things that I need to improve on still, and there’s still work to be done. But right now I feel pretty comfortable there.”
“Alfonso looks great. I think that’s his natural position,” coach Johnson added. “I think with the athleticism we have with the other potential outfielders, that’s going to be a natural fit.”
At the dish, Rivas hit .247/.329/.332 in 2016, drove in 26 runs, and had one enormous home run in San Diego at the Tony Gwynn Classic. In 190 ABs, he struck out 38 times, compared to only 18 bases on balls drawn.
“I’ve really been working on being a competitor up there,” Rivas said about what he’s doing offensively during practice. “Not go down so easily, and things have been going well. I feel like I’m seeing the ball a lot better this year. I feel like my body is in a better state than it was last year, and I feel more ready to hit this year.”
Arizona doesn’t open the season until February 17th against Eastern Kentucky, so there’s still time for Rivas to improve and possibly lock down his role as the left-handed option at first base.
“Just take it one day at a time and get better every single day,” he said about what he’s focused on. “I feel more comfortable just knowing because I’ve been through it once. I’m not saying I’m a veteran now, but as you go through it once, you sort of know how things work, and it gives you a little different perspective on things.”