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Pitching will be biggest X-factor for Arizona baseball in 2020

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arizona-wildcats-baseball-college-preview-2020-johnson-yeskie-flanagan Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After narrowly missing the NCAA Tournament each of the last two years, Arizona baseball opens its 2020 season Friday night when it hosts Albany at Hi Corbett Field.

With opening day rapidly approaching, it's clear which aspect of the Wildcats’ game needs to improve if they are to be invited to the program’s first regional since 2017.

Pitching.

Last year, the Wildcats (who finished 32-24) boasted one of college baseball’s best offenses, incredibly finishing the season top five in the NCAA in batting average, runs, on base percentage, slugging percentage, doubles and triples. But they were still left out of the tournament because of a pitching staff that ranked as low as 249th in the NCAA for team ERA, 214th for strikeouts per game, 263rd for walks allowed per game, 241st in hits allowed per game, and tied for dead last in all of college baseball in shutouts.

Even a 10-game winning streak to end the year wasn’t enough in the eyes of the selection committee, and the Wildcats’ shortcomings on the mound ultimately led to their hiring of one of the nation’s most respected pitching coaches this offseason — Nate Yeskie from Oregon State.

It was a move clearly intended to yield immediate results.

Yeskie won both a national championship and a national coach of the year award with the Beavers, and his addition alone has led to some optimism that this season the UA’s pitching will indeed be more effective than it was in 2019.

“He’s been nothing but professional,” senior righthander Vince Vanelle said of his new coach. “The way he handles his business is nothing but professional, and it’s no secret why he’s always been successful. He’s been giving us little reminders and tips to help us be our best and just constantly wanting more out of us.”

Sophomore righty Quinn Flanagan said that he too has already been impressed with Yeskie.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who knows more about pitching than him,” Flanagan said. “He does really good job personalizing each guy’s program. One thing might work for one guy, another thing might worked for another. He does a good job to know all the pitcher’s skill sets.”

In addition to the hire of Yeskie, UA head coach Jay Johnson feels like less walks and an improved defense will also help his pitching staff this year.

“Minimizing free bases is going to minimize the opponent’s ability to score,” Johnson said earlier in the preseason. “I think doing that and playing with a better defense will help our pitching tremendously.”

It was announced at the team’s official media day on Tuesday that while Flanagan will pitch Saturday’s game two against Albany, the opening night starter is a newcomer: lefty Garret Irvin, a junior college transfer.

Irvin went 10-2 with a 2.25 ERA last year at Riverside (Calif.) City College.

“He’s a winner,” Johnson said of Irvin. “I mean, in two seasons of college baseball, I think he has won 23 or 24 games. And, frankly, when you talk about improving things, it’s about throwing strikes. And I think, when you look at him ... he will suffocate the strike zone, which makes it a lot easier to play defense.

“I equate baseball and football a lot. Football is a game of turnovers, who won the time of possession, baseball is about taking as much free stuff as you can, cashing in on it, which offensively we’ve been really good at. So frankly it just comes down to strike zone pressure.”

The Cats’ starter in game two, Flanagan, was the Wildcats’ most consistent starting pitcher last year, finishing with a 4.92 ERA and a 8-3 record.

In addition to those two guys and Vannelle, freshmen Dawson Netz and Chandler Murphy along with grad transfer Davis Vainer and a myriad of returners will all play a role in improving the Wildcats’ performance on the mound.

According to Johnson, more than anything else, his staff’s success will simply comes down to throwing pitches that are either within or near the strike zone.

“It’s all-encompassing,” he said. “I think it’s just creating pressure on the hitter by having count leverage, first pitch strikes, the near misses, where the hitter has to make a decision on every pitch, when hitters can’t eliminate pitches because they know a pitcher can throw all four pitches for strikes. It allows them to command the at bat a lot better. And so our guys can really make that difficult to do. Soften hitters up, locate the fastball, change speeds.”

The Wildcats’ 2020 season will hinge almost entirely on if they can heed their manager’s words and do just that.

First pitch against the Great Danes is set for 6 p.m. MST.