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Arizona baseball to take on SE Louisiana, hoping to bounce back from season-opening split

arizona-wildcats-baseball-southeast-louisiana-lions-2021-hi-corbett-preview-johnson-pac12 Mike Christy, Arizona Athletics

Arizona learned a lot about itself in splitting a 4-game series with Ball State last weekend. A scan of scores from around college baseball also helped the Wildcats learn a lot about other teams and how uncertain this season may be at the start.

“I think, if there’s a year going into a college baseball season where a lot of teams don’t really know what they have, I don’t think you can make assumptions based on the name of a school,” UA coach Jay Johnson said Wednesday. “There’s just so little data to go off of what happened in 2020.”

Arizona dropped significantly in every poll after starting 2-2, even following out of the D1Baseball Top 25, but it wasn’t alone. Consensus preseason No. 1 Florida lost two of three at home to Miami (Fla.), UCLA dropped two of three at home to San Francisco and both Texas and Texas Tech have started 0-3 after beginning the season as top-10 teams.

“There’s a lot of unknowns,” said Johnson, who failed to sweep an opening series for the first time since his first year at Arizona in 2016 when the Wildcats went 2-1 at Rice to start the season.

Arizona will get a chance to right the ship this weekend when it hosts SE Louisiana in a 4-game series at Hi Corbett, beginning Thursday. The first two games will start at 6 p.m. MST, with Saturday’s matchup beginning at 1 and the getaway game Sunday starting at 10 a.m.

This will be the first-ever meeting with the Lions, who are 3-0 after outscoring Mississippi Valley State 66-0 last weekend. SELA, which was 6-10 during the shortened 2020 season, finished with a winning record every year between 2007-19 and made the NCAA Tournament in 2014, 2016 and 2017.

Johnson said he plans to remain in the dugout when his team is hitting, something he did in Monday’s 11-5 win after previously serving as the third base coach. He believes doing that helped his team get settled, particularly the younger players who are still getting used to the college game.

“We did start a couple freshmen, and you look at Mac Bingham, I mean, he played for us last year but only got 15 games under his belt,” Johnson said. “Kobe Kato, Tyler Casagrande, they were in there for the first time starting. And then, just the magnitude of getting back to playing baseball in real games, a lot of them hadn’t done that in a long time.”

Arizona, which hit .288 last season and .326 in 2019, had 36 hits in the 4-game series against Ball State but struggled mightily with runners on base, stranding 46.

The Wildcats’ pitching was good overall, particularly from the starters, who allowed only five runs in 18.2 innings. But Johnson hopes to better line up his relievers, who were tagged for 10 runs in 15.2 innings. That doesn’t include sophomore Quinn Flanagan, a starter by trade who came in for junior Garrett Irvin in the second inning on Sunday in a planned move due to Irvin having a limited pitch count while coming off arm soreness.

“We want to line up the pitching a little bit better,” Johnson said. “It was in a pretty good spot until the eighth inning of Saturday night’s game. That’s going to happen, and I think that we can only take that as a learning experience. We want to be in the position where every pitcher we’re bringing in is the right situation for them to be put into.”

Five relievers made two appearances in the first series, with three of those being Arizona’s most experienced arms in seniors Preston Price and Vince Vannelle and junior Ian Churchill. Johnson said they’ll continue to be looked at for multiple outings over a weekend, if needed, as could sophomore lefty specialist Randy Abshier, though he’d prefer not to throw him into the fire like he did Saturday when Abshier came on with the bases loaded and nobody out and ended up walking in two runs.

“That wasn’t a good setup for Randy,” Johnson said.

Johnson plans to stick with the same starting rotation, opening with sophomore right-hander Chase Silseth on Thursday and continuing with freshman righty TJ Nichols on Friday, lefty Irvin on Saturday (with less of a pitch restriction) and freshman righty Chandler Murphy on Sunday.