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NCAA Baseball Tournament: Arizona pitcher Juan Aguilera throwing with more confidence

An unexpected hero for the Wildcats in Regional play

Juan Aguilera peers in for a sign during an Arizona home game
Jason Bartel

When the Arizona Wildcats and Delaware Blue Hens entered a two-hour rain delay after the 10th inning on Saturday, the two coaches had tough choices.

Both had just brought in new pitchers, with Arizona bringing in likely Sunday starter Cody Deason...should they get that far.

“There’s no way I’m leaving this tournament without one of our best pitchers pitching,” head coach Jay Johnson said of his decision to bring in Deason in the 10th. “I’m not doing that. I knew he’d be able to handle it.”

But Johnson knew he had to make a change after the delay to preserve his sophomore star’s health.

So he chose Juan Aguilera, who came into the game with an ERA of 7.36 in eight appearances this year.

“I found out pretty much right when the delay happened,” Aguilera explained of when he knew he was coming in the game. “After he told me I just wanted to clear my mind, take a deep breath, and understand what I was getting put into and to not overthink it but just go out there and perform.”

“I really went through the list of everybody that was available and how they matched up with the hitters that were coming up,” Johnson added about the decision. “They’re a very right-handed heavy team, so I went ‘Who has the best out pitch of any of the guys available?’ and I thought Juan’s slider would get them caught in between and I just felt good about him.”

Despite his not-so-great season numbers, Aguilera had not allowed a hit in his previous three outings, which totaled 3 23 innings over the course of May.

“Confidence,” Aguilera credited his recent improved performance to. “Just believing in myself. That was my problem before and I’ve just been working on that since I’ve been here, and it’s been helping me ever since.”

“I think the confidence allows him to throw his pitches with conviction, and that’s what I see is different,” Johnson followed up with. “And you know what, it’s a steep learning curve.”

That steep learning curve is Aguilera being a first-year NCAA player, coming from Cochise Junior College.

“It’s one of the best JCs in the country to play baseball at with one of the best coaches, but it’s the Pac-12, it’s Division-I baseball, it’s the NCAA Regional Tournament,” added Johnson. “And he probably thought for a little while ‘Hey, do I belong here?’ and we liked the breaking ball. We felt like it was an out pitch and he could serve a role for us, and he just needed to feel about himself the way we did when we brought him in here, and it’s been a nice progression and he’ll be out there again tomorrow for sure.”

“The last couple times on the mound he’s been outstanding,” catcher Cesar Salazar added. “His slider’s dirty, and he’s been able to locate fastballs out and in, but yeah he’s been working on that confidence and it’s totally working.”

So it’s at least somewhat understandable why Arizona decided to go with Aguilera in the most important spot of the season.

He made that decision pay off, throwing two scoreless innings, including a strikeout that ended the game and Delaware’s season.

“I’ve been through some pressure situations back in my junior college and I just looked back to that and my success in previous years,” Aguilera said. “I just wanted to attack the hitters and it worked out.”

It certainly did, and because it did work out, Arizona will live another day in the postseason.