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What to know about Arizona baseball entering the 2021 season

arizona-wildcats-college-baseball-jay-johnson-season-preview-2021-pitching-covid-pac12 Mike Mattina / Arizona Athletics

After seeing its 2020 season cut short after just 15 games, the Arizona baseball team will finally return to action this weekend to open the 2021 campaign.

The UA will host Ball State in a four-game series beginning Friday at 6 p.m. MST at Hi Corbett Field. Fans are currently not allowed at the stadium, but the game will be streamed live via Arizona’s Web site.

Arizona, which started 10-5 a year ago before the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down in mid-March, is looking to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017. Here’s what you need to know about this team, which is a consensus preseason Top 25 pick:

Arizona has no shortage of experience

With the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to all players from 2020, as well as the one-year expansion of roster and scholarship usage limits, this could arguably be Arizona’s most talented team ever based on sheer numbers.

It will also be its most veteran, something sixth-year head coach Jay Johnson is very excited about.

“I really enjoy having an older team,” he said. “We have a number of players that are in their third and fourth year at Arizona, which doesn’t really happen. I think there’s an age/experience benefit that every team is going to get.”

Arizona’s 45-man roster includes two seniors, seven juniors and 12 sophomores in addition to 24 freshmen. Senior pitcher Preston Price is entering his fifth season with the program, while junior outfielders Blake Paugh and Donta’ Williams and pitcher Gil Luna are in their fourth year at the UA.

The newcomers are about as good as they get

In addition to where the team sits in various preseason polls, Arizona’s first-year players are also quite highly rated. D1Baseball says the Wildcats have the fourth-best crop of newcomers in the country.

Three freshmen were ranked among the top 100 in the country in outfielder Chase Davis, catcher Daniel Susac and right-handed pitcher TJ Nichols. Adding to Arizona’s newcomer value are three top-notch transfer in righties Chase Silseth (Southern Nevada) and Austin Smith (Southwestern) and outfielder Tanner Tremba (Texas Tech).

Other freshmen who are expected to make an impact early are outfielder/pitcher Kyle Casper, 1B/3B Jacob Berry, 1B/P TJ Curd and righty Ryan Kysar.

Pitching remains the emphasis

Division I baseball teams are allocated 11.7 scholarships that they divvy up among their players, with almost nobody getting a full ride. For Arizona this year, the bulk of its scholarship usage has gone to the pitching staff, with Johnson saying 15 pitchers are getting at least some aid.

“I think we’ve always tried to invest on the pitching side of it,” Johnson said. “There’s probably 7.5 to 8 of our scholarships invested in the pitching staff. I think it’s a unit that has the potential perform at a high level, and I expect them to perform at a high level.”

Last year, under the guidance of new pitching coach Nate Yeskie, Arizona had a 3.87 ERA through 15 games compared to 6.23 the season before. The Wildcats struck out 162 batters in 135 innings while allowing only 82 players to reach on either walks or hit batters.

In 2019, the UA struck out 409 in 488.2 innings while issuing 290 walks and 63 HBP.

“When I took this job I actually had a few people tell me not to take it because the pitching was in such bad shape,” Johnson said. “That first year it was essentially six guys carrying the bulk of the innings. We added three of those six guys after I was hired.”

Four game in four days is the early norm

With the 2020 season beginning a week later than normal, the pre-Pac-12 slate is a little more compact. As a result, Arizona’s first five weekends will see it play four games in as many days.

Three of those four-game series are at Hi Corbett, while March 4-7 the Wildcats play Oklahoma (twice), Dallas Baptist and Missouri at the Frisco College Baseball Classic in Texas and then Pac-12 play begins March 19-21 at UCLA with a Monday stop at Loyola Marymount to end that trip.

That’s going to put an extra emphasis on the pitching staff, with the starters being asked to provide some length right out of the gate while the bullpen will get plenty of work over the course of a weekend.

“I think we’re in a really good spot,” Johnson said. “The nine pitchers that pitched the best for our team last year in the abbreviated 2020 season are returning. And then adding Chase Silseth, TJ Nichols, Austin Smith, a guy like Trevor Long to those guys, I really like the opportunity to having those four-game series.”

Jay is determined to play

Postponements and cancellations have wreaked havoc on fall and winter college sports, with basketball having dozens of games called off every week. Johnson is well aware that could happen in baseball as well, though he believes Arizona will find a way to still play all 56 regular season games even if that means swapping out opponents at the last moment.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to play as many games as we possibly can,” Johnson said, noting that Arizona had one positive test during fall practice and none since the team returned for preseason camp. “All of the positives have been outside the time we’ve been together. The common thread is keeping us as one group, a tight-knit group.”

Johnson said he’s told his players that, if a few are unavailable due to COVID issues, that won’t stop him from playing the game. He also said he’s gotten assurances from his administration that they’ll work with him to replace opponents if a cancellation comes from them.

“And if we have an issue with an opponent, let’s say in week three or four that opponent can’t play, and then somewhere in the ACC, Louisville and Miami gets cancelled because of some issue with Miami, we’re going to try and play Louisville,” Johnson said. “That’s how I’m going to approach it,. We’re going to get on the field as much as possible.”

The Pac-12 is requiring teams to have 10 available position players, including two full-time catchers, as well as eight pitchers in order to play. With 45 players on the roster, 25 of whom are listed as pitchers, there’s no shortage of available bodies for games.