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3 questions for Arizona baseball heading into Houston series

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NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Arizona vs UC Santa Barbara Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Before Arizona baseball opens Pac-12 play next week with a home series against Oregon State, the Wildcats (8-4) will be in action this weekend at Hi Corbett when they host the Houston Cougars (4-7) in a three-game set.

First pitch of the series is scheduled for Friday night at 6 p.m MST, and with conference play rapidly approaching, here’s three questions that will define this weekend’s battle between the Cats and the Cougars.

Which version of Arizona’s pitching staff will show up?

There is no doubt that under the tutelage of new coach Nate Yeskie, the Wildcats’ pitching has been much, much better this season when compared to last. Arizona’s team ERA is down from 6.23 in 2019 to 4.25, and they’ve posted a 11.58 K/9 rate — the 20th-best mark in the nation and a serious increase from their mark of 7.52 last year.

But still, there have been multiple games this year where the Wildcats’ arms were relatively shelled. Rhode Island managed to score 25 runs over a two game stretch last weekend — while Albany scored seven runs on opening night and Texas managed six runs and 11 hits against the UA in their game on Tuesday.

There have been some standout performers like Vince Vannelle, Preston Price, Blake Peyton, Chandler Murphy and Dawson Netz, but both Yeskie and head coach Jay Johnson will still be wanting more consistency from all of their arms going into the conference slate.

If Arizona is ultimately going to make a return to the NCAA Tournament, they are going to need to do exactly that. So, it will be interesting to see which version of the staff shows up against Houston.

Johnson announced that Garret Irvin (3-0, 4.50) will start Friday against the Cougars and Quinn Flanagan (1-1, 2.76) will go on Saturday. Sunday’s starter is still undecided.

Is Matt Dyer heating up?

So far this season, Arizona’s offense has been good, but not prolific like it was in 2019. One reason for that slight decline might be the slow start of utility man Matt Dyer.

Dyer came into the season after nearly hitting .400 last year (.393) and he was projected to be among the best players in the Pac-12 in 2020. It’s safe to say that he hasn’t played up to expectations so far, posting just a .205 batting average through the Wildcats’ first 12 games.

However, he’s started to turn things around in the last three games, going 4-for-10 (.400) with two HRs and nine RBIs in that stretch.

Dyer will be looking to stay hot against Houston and ultimately get back to where he was in 2019 once conference play begins. If he can do that, it could possibly take what has so far been a solid Wildcat offense to a whole other level.

Will the defense improve?

While the Wildcats’ pitching has certainly been better so far this season, their defense simply hasn’t. Through 12 games, the UA has made 19 errors, the second worst from a Pac-12 team so far in 2020.

Most of the problems have been in the middle infield, much like last year. Kyson Donahue, UA’s starting shortstop, has made a team-worst five errors (and has been benched because of it) while veteran Jacob Blas has made three of his own.

It’s been so bad that Johnson was even switching defenders around in between at bats against Texas.

“We scout our opponents a lot in terms of where they’re going to hit the ball,” the skipper said. “I guess I would equate it to like basketball, you put your best defender on the leading scorer, so you put your best defender where the ball is going to go and baseball. So that’s why we did that”

Being better defensively will help Arizona win the type of games that they ultimately need to be invited to the NCAA Tournament, and defense will certainly be a key area to watch this weekend against Houston.