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Arizona baseball hoping to build off last year’s finish, shake off NCAA Tournament snub

arizona-wildcats-baseball-johnson-wells-dyer-flanagan-hitting-pitching-defense-2020-pac-12-preview Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

When the Arizona Wildcats begin the 2020 season in a little more than two weeks, they will do so carrying the longest active win streak in college baseball at 10 games.

That’s both a good thing and a bad one.

It’s a positive in that it shows just how well Arizona was playing at the end of 2019, but since those 10 straight victories were all during the regular season it’s also a reminder the Wildcats were left out of the NCAA tournament for a second straight year.

“Missing narrowly is a tough pill to swallow,” said UA coach Jay Johnson, who enters his fifth season in charge of the program that he took to the College World Series as a first-year coach in 2016.

Johnson said he could “recite you a list” of games last season that Arizona let get away, any one or two of which might have been enough to get it into the postseason had it won. But dwelling on the past won’t be part of the process for the near-present, junior utilityman Matthew Dyer said.

“There’s no thinking back to last year,” said Dyer, who is projected to be the Wildcats’ starting catcher but could end up playing nearly every position other than pitcher at some point this spring. “I’m really excited to see what we have in store.”

Dyer, who hit .393 in 42 games in 2019, is one of five returning batters with at least 40 starts from a team that was second the country in scoring (9.8 runs per game) and third in batting average (.326). That group also includes sophomore 1B/C Austin Wells, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year who has landed on several preseason All-American lists, as well as sophomore infielder Dayton Dooney and outfielders Ryan Holgate (sophomore) and Donta Williams (junior).

Johnson said he’s currently looking at 13 different players for Arizona’s nine batting slots, with redshirt freshman Kyson Donahue locked in at shortstop. Dooney and sophomore Tony Bullard are battling for the third base job while junior Jacob Blas figures to be at second baseman after missing most of 2019 due to personal reasons and injury.

That alignment should help the Wildcats vastly improve defensively after being very error-prone in 2019.

“I think our depth has really increased each year,” Johnson said. “The year we went to Omaha, it was like, ‘man, I hope someone doesn’t get hurt.’ I think we’re in a good spot. We have a little more experience.”

Holgate could be in for a breakout sophomore season after transforming his body while playing in the Northwoods League over the summer. He hit .240 with seven home runs with the Wildcats last spring before hitting 13 homers with 53 RBI in 58 games during the summer.

“He really wants to be a complete player, become a great baseball player,” Johnson said. “I think he’s well on his way to that. He’s a threat to hit the ball out of the stadium every time he comes to the plate.”

Hitting the ball and scoring runs won’t be a problem for Arizona. And because of that, Johnson said he’s fine with his pitchers allowing 10 or 12 hits a game as long as that isn’t accompanied by a bunch of walks, as was the case in 2019 when the pitching staff issued 290 free passes.

“Minimizing the free bases with minimize the opponent’s opportunity to score,” Johnson said. “I do believe we have several guys who can attack the strike zone with several pitches. If you can do that you’re putting pressure on their offense to earn what they get. By doing that and then playing really good defense that’s going to put us in a good position.”

Enter Arizona’s biggest offseason acquisition, pitching coach Nate Yeskie. Plucked away from perennial power Oregon State, Yeskie brings a load of knowledge and experience that can only help make Arizona’s arms more effective.

“The hiring of Nate Yeskie was huge,” said reliever Davis Vainer, a graduate transfer from Alabama. “Just picking his brain, that will definitely help me move forward.”

Vainer and the rest of Arizona’s bullpen are being extended during the preseason so that it will be easier for them to taper down to shorter outings when the real games begin, Johnson said. Along with that, he said six pitchers are in the process of being stretched out to where they can throw 90 pitches by the weekend before the Feb. 14 opener against Albany.

Among that group is sophomore Quinn Flanagan, who was 8-3 last season, and senior Vince Vannelle, who led the team with a 3.47 ERA mostly out of the pen.

The Wildcats, who are ranked 18th in Baseball America’s preseason poll, host Albany for three games Feb. 14-16 at Hi Corbett Field to open 2020 play. The Pac-12 season begins at home March 13 against Oregon State, with home conference series also on tap against Stanford (April 3-5), Washington State (April 9-11), ASU (April 24-26) and UCLA (May 8-10).