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NCAA Baseball Tournament: Arizona Wildcats will live and die by the shift

The defensive positioning will be an important part of Arizona’s game this month

Jay Johnson coaches third base at the 2016 Tony Gwynn Classic
Jason Bartel

When the Arizona Wildcats arrived on the national stage last year, several things jumped out to the various commentators, reporters, and viewers about this team.

There was the pitching decisions and the double steals and the weird dugout antics, but seemingly every inning there was a new age of baseball thing that stood out.

The defensive positioning.

Arizona (and specifically assistant coach Sergio Brown) became well know for having the fielders in the exact right spot against nearly every single batter the Wildcats faced in the postseason.

That all comes down to studying spray charts and watching hitter tendencies and all that stuff, but it was something that seems insignificant that allowed Arizona to win some of those games by robbing the weak base hit.

However, in recent weeks, it seems like Arizona’s getting burned by it more often than not.

“What I have found is that it is really on and they hit it right where we’re standing, or it’s off,” head coach Jay Johnson explained. “I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily on the pitcher, I think that’s hard to say. For instance, we got beat on one when JC (Cloney) knocked the bat out of Tanner Dodson’s hands and it just kind of squirted into the middle of nowhere.”

“We play the positioning with great confidence that our pitcher’s going to execute the pitch,” continued Johnson. “And if they don’t, it makes it harder, there’s no question about that. We’re also willing to make adjustments hitter to hitter and say hey, this might’ve been what we had coming in, but based on who’s on the mound it might change, or based on the hitter from an at bat or two we’re not afraid to change, because you’re getting a different player every day.”

“You just try to do your homework and hope that you’re right.”

The Wildcats are also starting to see more teams shift against them, specifically JJ Matijevic, who has grounded out to the second baseman in shallow right field multiple times the past couple of series.

However, it’s not a thing that’s easy for Arizona to adjust to when preparing for the Lubbock Regional this weekend.

“It’s hard to see on camera,” Johnson said about trying to study the opposition’s tendency to shift or not. “I have noticed it with JJ the last couple days, but what’s great about it is that this year he’s made himself into such a complete hitter that it might work once or twice, but the at bat that defines or decides the game, it could really backfire because he’s so good at using the entire field.”

So will teams line up their defense in odd ways against Arizona? Maybe. Will the Wildcats do it? Probably. But on a turf field like the one Texas Tech has, any advantage you can get defensively will help win ball games, so it’s always at least worth a shot.