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Arizona baseball: Ryan Haug forcing his way into Wildcats’ lineup

Even if it means playing somewhere he’s never practiced before

Ryan Haug takes an at bat during the 2016 Tony Gwynn Classic
Jason Bartel

Many times, high school catchers that can hit get moved out to the outfield to increase their longevity.

In Ryan Haug’s case, he’s getting moved to the outfield kind of on the fly as the postseason approaches.

“Yesterday and today,” Haug said on Tuesday on how long he’s been practicing the outfield with the Arizona Wildcats. “I haven’t done anything for it this year.”

So when you consider he went into left field at the end of Saturday’s game against College of Charleston, and was the starting left fielder in the series finale on Sunday, that’s a huge leap of faith from the Arizona coaching staff.

“I can’t remember if it was this fall or last fall, but we experimented with it a little bit,” head coach Jay Johnson explained. “I just remember him getting some really good jumps and reads and running down balls, and to be honest I’m a little surprised we hadn’t gone back to it at some point on this team.”

“I was just comfortable with his athleticism, and he actually made a phenomenal play in the game on Saturday night,” coach continued. “It was a great first step and he ran down a ball that was tailing away from him and it was pretty cool. He had a great game — two big hits, big RBI, big double — and I was just walking out of the park on Saturday night and I was kind of passing by him and I was like ‘You’re playing tomorrow’. I wanted to reward him for a good performance.”

“It was fun,” Haug said of starting in left on Sunday. “A lot of the guys were like ‘Haug boy, you’re in left?’ and I just said ‘Hey whatever gets me in the lineup’.”

It’s tough to keep Haug out of the Wildcat lineup right now. Since April 29th, he’s 6-for-17 at the plate, walked twice, and has scored four runs. His season batting average has gone from .208 to .268 in that time, nearly reaching regular starting catcher Cesar Salazar’s mark of .272.

“He’s playing good and he’s a really good competitor and mature player and understands our brand of baseball at a really high level,” Johnson said about trying to play Haug more. “It’s day-to-day with players, and I like our position group as much as any team in the country, but when you play the schedule that we do and face the pitching that we do, there’s going to be some peaks and valleys.”

“I try to figure out today what’s our best option, and right now that’s Ryan.”

One of the reasons Haug hasn’t played much these past two seasons has been a chronic back issue which has held him out of fall practices and limiting his reps in-season.

So getting into games more frequently like he’s done in the past month (seven of his 11 total starts have come since April 22nd) has really helped him gain some confidence against live pitching.

“Obviously you’re seeing more live pitching, more live at bats frequently, so you’re going to kind of get into that groove,” Haug said. “When you’re not in you try to stand at the front of the dugout and stay focused so when you do get that opportunity you’re ready for it.”

Even though the injury is mostly behind him at this point, he constantly has an ace bandage wrapped around his waist to help his lower back.

“My body’s feeling great honestly, but it’s more of a comfortability thing really,” he explained. “I pretty much live with this thing while I’m here. It’s not the most comfortable thing, but it’s good.”

Haug played junior college ball at Santa Rosa JC where he was in the same division as current teammate Kyle Lewis, who was at Sierra College. So Lewis saw Haug before the injury bug took a grip on the catcher’s back.

“He’s just a lot more patient and he’s become a better baseball player,” Lewis said of the changes he’s seen in Haug over the past two years. “As long as he can stay healthy he’s one of the best baseball players on this team.”

“He was by far the best player in the (junior college) conference,” continued Lewis. “So I’ve seen him be great, and I know he can do it again. He’s just gotta stay healthy.”

Back in those days, it was pretty evident that lack of competitiveness was not an issue that Haug had to deal with.

“He ended up sweeping us,” Lewis said sadly about their past showdowns at the JC level. “But they were both one-run games and one game I had three doubles down the line, but in the last game of the series, they beat us 1-0. (Haug) came up with the bases loaded in a 0-0 game, and he lined one but I sprawled up and made a leaping catch at second to rob three RBI from him. The next inning I came up and lined out into a double play, so it’s just good competitiveness.”

The memories of this particular game actually manifested themselves in an Arizona practice.

“There was an incident where we got into it at the plate a little bit,” Lewis said through a wry smile. “He gave me a stern tag and we got into each other’s face. We didn’t say any words but it’s funny how we’re teammates now. I love the guy. Definitely rivals then but we’re good friends now.”

“That does exemplify why they’re key members of a team of this caliber,” Johnson said about the incident, of which he didn’t specifically remember. “They’re extremely competitive, unbelievable baseball guys, and the types of guys I want in the program.”

“We’re very fortunate to have both of them.”