For the second consecutive Memorial Day, Jay Johnson met with the media in front of the Arizona baseball offices at Hi Corbett Field with disappointment written all over his face.
As he spoke to the assembled writers and TV anchors in the home bullpen grass for over 10 minutes, there was no anger in his tone, but the somberness in the typically upbeat Johnson’s voice was palpable.
The source of the skipper’s mood was obvious: Arizona had been left out of the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row, finishing on the wrong side of the bubble despite a stellar finish to the regular season.
The Wildcats won their final 10 games, and 13 of 14, just to get into the NCAA tourney conversation, but much like 2018, Selection Monday wasn’t a happy one for the ‘Cats.
“Today’s really disappointing,” Johnson said. “Having been in nine or 10 of these things (NCAA Tournaments) this is my favorite day of the year when it goes good, so I’m really sad that we don’t get to continue moving forward.”
Johnson, who just finished his fourth season in Tucson, added that he believes his squad deserved an invitation from the selection committee.
“I do think we’re one of the 33 best at-large teams. A lot of people know that. I’ve had four Pac-12 coaches text me, going, ‘C’mon, man. Is this really where we’re at?’ But it is where we’re at,” he said.
“But we’re not going to make any excuses about any of that. We lost some games this year that we have not lost here before, and that made a difference.”
The games he was referring to seemed to be midweek losses against New Mexico and Michigan State earlier this season. Both teams finished well under .500 and near the bottom of their respective conference standings.
Ultimately, one of the most dangerous offenses in college baseball, an RPI in the top 50 and a late-season push to get their conference record above .500—largely believed to be the reason for the Wildcats missing the tourney in last year— were not enough in the eyes of the committee.
The first 75 percent of the season held too much weight (Arizona was just 18-24 on May 1), as did a 3-16 record against top-50 opponents.
“Even though we played 15 of those 19 (top-50) games on the road, it’s enough of an excuse to leave us out of the tournament,” Johnson said. “We didn’t do enough of what we had to do in the first half of the schedule to make this go how we wanted it to go.”
The Wildcats finished the year with a record of 32-24 overall and 15-14 in the PAC-12– good for sixth in the conference standings.
Johnson also noted the impact of being without several key players for all or part of the season.
“Looking at the injury piece of it, losing Matt Fraizer for the core of the season, losing Matt Dyer at the end, Bryce Collins’ injury was a big blow to a pitching staff who had little margin for error and then Jacob Blas was our starting shortstop,” he said. “I was thinking about it last night and that’s probably the equivalent of taking J.J. Taylor, Khalil Tate and Colin Schooler off the football team and expecting them to win a Pac-12 game. That’s hard to do.”
Had some of those guys not gotten hurt, or had the Cats played the likes of UCLA, Stanford and Oregon State at the friendly confines of Hi Corbett, rather than on the road, things could have been very different come selection day. Even just one or two more wins against those highly-ranked schools might have done the trick.
Arizona went 1-8 against the Pac-12’s top three teams, all of whom are hosting regionals this weekend, and blew late leads twice at UCLA and once at OSU in addition to a win at Stanford. Throwing ASU into the equation, the Wildcats blew leads in two of the four games they lost against their biggest rival.
Winning any of those might’ve tipped the odds in the UA’s favor come selection day.
UCLA, Stanford, OSU and ASU all got into the tournament, as did Cal. Arizona was just 2-14 against that quintet and 30-10 against everyone else.
Despite the snub, Johnson commended the growth and perseverance that his squad showed over the course of the year.
“I believe that these guys, without making the tournament, which is what we want to do as competitors, accomplished about as much as they could without doing that,” he said. “I don’t want to take away from that because I feel like it would be disrespectful. I’m disappointed, but I’m really proud of our team. I mean Saturday, in a must-win game (at Washington State), we have five freshmen in the lineup and a freshman pitcher on the mound and I felt like the growth of that group was significant.
“I’ve rarely seen a group in the Pac-12 successfully do what our freshman have done this season.”
The Wildcats will figure to be better in 2020, as they possess a plethora of young talent that would seemingly get better with a full year of experience now under their belts.
Soon-to-be sophomores Austin Wells, Dayton Dooney, Ryan Holgate, Quinn Flanagan and Branden Boissierre are all in line to play major roles next season and the same goes for would-be seniors Fraizer, Dyer and Randy Labaut whom each could return depending on what happens in next week’s MLB Draft.
The same can’t be said for top prospects Nick Quintana and Cameron Cannon, Johnson said.
“There’s a lot of sadness in probably not getting to coach those two anymore,” he remarked.
Despite feeling the natural disappointment of not making the NCAA Tournament, it was clear that Johnson was trying as hard as he could to look at the season as a positive. After all, it was a team that averaged the second-most runs in the country and that was built on Johnson’s largest freshman class at Arizona.
Even though 2019 will be looked at as a disappointment, it could very well serve as the foundational year that the program needed to get back to where Arizona baseball feels it belongs.
“I really feel good about the young players and the team; I feel good about how they persevered through the season and I feel good about the character of things.” Johnson concluded. “The reality is we have to get a little better so we don’t put ourselves where we don’t know the night before. Because my biggest takeaway is, if you’re not sure, you’re not in (the tournament) from what I’ve seen.”