After not receiving an invite to the NCAA Tournament in 2018, it’s been clear throughout Arizona baseball’s near-monthlong “spring training” that the biggest goal for this season is to get back to where the program feels it belongs.
Last season the Wildcats were among the ‘first four out’ of the tournament field, and can look at their sub .500 record in conference play (they were 14-16 against Pac-12 opponents) and their struggles away from home (10-13 on the road) as the main reasons for not reaching the postseason for the first time in three years under coach Jay Johnson.
“Really that day (selection day), we went to work on this deal,” Johnson said. “there was a lot of pain associated with that day, but you know there is only one way to respond to that and that’s to keep moving forward and to take some of the lessons that you learned and apply it to what we feel like is a very good process of developing a team.”
If Arizona is able to respond and get back to the NCAA Tournament this season, it will rely heavily on a combination of Johnson’s biggest freshman class in Tucson to date and some key veteran leadership from his upperclassmen as well.
The Wildcats’ roster features 14 true freshmen along with two redshirts, and Johnson has already tabbed three of them to be in the lineup for Friday’s opening game against UMass-Lowell.
“I don’t expect the year to end the way it starts, it never does,” Johnson said, regarding the team’s lineup. “But Austin Wells and Ryan Holgate will be in there on Friday, and Branden Boissiere probably will be as well.”
On top of the three position players getting their first college starts, Johnson also announced that two freshman pitchers will start games during this weekend’s opening series against the River Hawks.
“Bryce Collins will start on Saturday in game two, and Quinn Flanagan, another freshman, will start on Sunday.”
Johnson’s reliance on at least five freshmen to feature as starters in the season’s opening series is not only a testament to the youth that this Arizona squad features, but also in the faith that Johnson already has in them to deliver when it counts.
Johnson also announced that Randy Labaut, a junior lefthander, will get the nod as the starter in the season opener, marking a full return from his injury-plagued 2018.
In March of last year, Labaut discovered he had compartment syndrome in his left leg, a muscle condition that forced him into a surgery that saw him miss over two months.
The hard-throwing Cuban had been lights out for Arizona before the injury, posting a 1.60 ERA over eight appearances and 33 innings, and his return to the rotation will be massive for Arizona in its quest to get back to the postseason.
“I’m over it (the injury) and healthier than ever,” Labaut said. “I’m in a good place in my life right now and in my baseball career.”
Labaut is one of a few crucial upperclassmen who the Wildcats will look towards to help lead the way this year.
Third baseman Nick Quintana and shortstop Cameron Cannon are another two players that will have huge leadership roles for the Wildcats in 2019, as both have been in the program for two years and each has been named to at least one preseason All-American team this spring.
Quintana, a two-year starter, is confident that Arizona will be back in the postseason despite its youth.
“We’re young, but there is a lot of talent,” he said. “There is really no reason for us to not be in the postseason this year.”
Quintana and Cannon’s presence towards the top of the batting order and on the left side of the infield will be another thing that Johnson is hoping will help to give some stability to such a young team, many of whom will be experiencing the ups and downs of a college baseball season for the first time.
“I think they’ve been great,” Johnson said of his two preseason All-Americans. “They have set a high bar for being great baseball players, worked really hard in the off-season and have been exemplary for the young guys in terms of doing what they need to do for our team to be successful.”
What would be a successful season for Arizona baseball in 2019?
The answer gets clearer and clearer the more time you spend around Hi Corbett Field, Johnson and his players: get back to the NCAA Tournament, no matter what it takes.
The Pac-12 coaches have picked Arizona to finish fourth in the conference, behind only UCLA, Oregon State and Stanford.