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3 questions facing Arizona baseball as it enters Pac-12 play

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NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Arizona vs Coastal Carolina Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona baseball opens conference play Friday night when it hosts Utah at 6 p.m. MST, to kick off a three-game series.

The Wildcats begin their Pac-12 slate with a somewhat disappointing record of 10-6, only the seventh best-record in the Pac-12.

Before first pitch against the Utes, let’s take a look at three of the big questions facing Arizona as they seek to improve upon an up and down start to the season.

Will the Wildcats be able to avoid the “big inning”?

In four of their six losses so far this year, there was one inning where things really got away from Arizona’s pitchers and all but guaranteed a loss.

On March 2 in a 10-4 loss against Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Panthers posted seven runs in the fifth inning. Three days later, Michigan State hung eight on Arizona in the seventh, during what was a 9-5 come-from-behind victory for the Spartans. The College of Charleston used a big inning to get a win at Hi-Corbett as well, when they scored five runs in the top of the third to ease to a 10-4 victory on March 10.

Worst of all, on February 27, the Wildcats were beating New Mexico 4-2 in the top of the ninth, before they allowed three runs to come around to score in the inning, to give the Lobos a late one-run lead. Arizona lost the game 5-4.

If the Wildcats had been able to avoid some of those big innings, their record could be 12-4 at the very least right now.

Much of answering this question, will come down to Arizona’s bullpen, which apart from Bryce Collins and George Arias Jr. has mostly been questionable this year.

“We have to pitch better,” UA head coach Jay Johnson said Thursday. “we need to eliminate the free base things, in terms the walks and the hit by pitches, but it’s right there in front of us and I think we have the players to it if they continue to develop.”

If the Wildcats are going to be able to compete in a tough Pac-12 conference and ultimately reach the NCAA Tournament this season, they are going to need to solidify the bullpen and get rid of this habit of letting things unravel in one inning.

Can Arizona improve defensively?

A major way that the Wildcats can try to remedy those fatal big innings is to play better defense.

Arizona enters Pac-12 play with the most errors and the worst fielding percentage in the conference by far. They have been so bad defensively that their 31 errors on the season are 11 more than USC, who is second to last in the conference in the category.

Johnson expressed confidence that his team is better in the field than it has shown so far.

“The defense has been a big issue,” he acknowledged, “but I think we are a lot better than we have shown and I know our guys have been working on it in practice.”

Johnson also added that the return of shortstop Jacob Blas, who played in the series finale against Charleston after missing a couple of weeks due to personal reasons, will solidify the infield.

“I think getting Jacob (Blas) back showed a little bit more of who we are,” he said, “and it will solidify the shortstop and second base thing as well. Cameron (Cannon) will play second and Jacob will be over at short. Hopefully it neutralizes a little bit of what has been going on over there.”

Cannon, who before the season was heralded as a top defensive player, has been a perfect representation of the Wildcats’ defensive woes, already making 13 errors in 2019 compared to seven all of last season.

If Johnson proves to be right and the defense gets better with Blas back out there, it could be a huge boost for this Arizona team.

Who will emerge as the Wildcats’ best offensive player?

While Cannon, a preseason All-American, is tied for the most doubles in the country with 11 and is hitting a team best .439, it is still up for debate who exactly has been the best offensive player for Arizona this season.

Junior center fielder Matt Fraizer has been a revelation at the plate so far in 2019 and enters Pac-12 play with the most RBIs for Arizona, with 22. His .397 average is better than all but Cannon’s as well.

Fraizer’s success so far has been something that Johnson has harped on throughout the year.

“You could argue that Matt has been our best offensive player,” Johnson said in a post-game presser a couple weeks back.

Freshman tandem Austin Wells and Ryan Holgate have made their own cases as well, with 16 and 19 RBI, respectively. Wells’ .386 batting average is third-best on the team behind Fraizer and Cannon, while Holgate is leading the team in home runs with three.

Any of those four could get the nod as the guy most likely to lead the way the rest of the season for Arizona.

But, in the middle of this equation, is the assumption in the back of everybody’s mind that Preseason All-American Nick Quintana is really going to catch fire at some point.

Quintana is hitting .281 right now and has a respectable 14 RBIs, but has left something to be desired at the plate so far. Johnson, however, has been adamant that he has complete faith in his third baseman and that he feels like he will really put everything together sooner rather than later.

“Nick is really coming around over the last couple of games,” Johnson said yesterday, “he’s a great third baseman and he continues to improve every day.”

It would be absolutely massive for the Wildcats if Quintana is able to get hot in conference play, as his big bat in the middle of the lineup is perfectly suited to be “the guy” that Arizona wants up to bat in big situations.

However things play out going forward, it is a certain that the Wildcats have a plethora of guys who will be huge factors offensively over the course of conference play.

Who exactly will set themselves apart out of that group though, is a little more up in the air.

Here is Jay Johnson’s full press conference from yesterday’s media availability. Arizona baseball (10-6) opens Pac-12 play tonight at 6 p.m. MST, when they host Utah at Hi Corbett Field.

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Friday, March 15, 2019