The Arizona Wildcats will face an early-season litmus test this weekend at the Frisco College Baseball Classic in Frisco, Texas, where they will take on their first power-conference and ranked opponents of the year.
Traveling for the first time with mandated COVID-19 protocols, the UA (6-2) is scheduled to play four games at the classic: two against the nationally ranked Oklahoma Sooners (4-3) and one apiece against Dallas Baptist (5-2) and Missouri (3-5). The Wildcats’ first game is set for 1 p.m. MST Thursday against Oklahoma.
“I feel like it’s one of the best tournaments in the country in terms of how it’s run and put on,” UA coach Jay Johnson said. “It has as an NCAA Tournament feel to it and that’s something I want our players to experience, in terms of the quality of the teams and in terms of a neutral site venue. It’s a great ballpark.”
The Wildcats enter the classic as one of the nation’s best offensive teams (a common theme in recent years) and currently find themselves leading the nation in walks (59), second in triples (5), fifth in hits (90), seventh in on-base percentage (.455), 12th in batting average (.321) and 23rd in doubles (16).
The UA ranks near the top of the Pac-12 in all of these statistical categories as well, and their hottest hitter as they head out to Frisco is sophomore first baseman Branden Boissiere, who is fresh off winning the Pac-12 Player of the Week Award after he went 13 for 20 with 2 home runs, 8 RBI and 10 runs scored in five games against Ball State and Southeastern Louisiana last week.
Boissiere leads Arizona in batting average, home runs, total bases, OBP and slugging percentage and is tied for the team’s top spot in several other categories.
“You know I’ve been working really hard in the off-season as well as in the spring so I think it’s starting to come together,” Boissiere said. “I’ve just been really working on my vision at the plate as well getting my foot down in time to see the ball, and it’s really been beneficial.”
His manager wasted no time heaping praise on him as well.
“He’s a great hitter,” Johnson said Tuesday. “Our pitchers and our players see it on a daily basis because we have scrimmaged so much. I think he just has a natural ability to see the ball well and a knack for getting the big part of the bat to the big part of the ball. I think he handles philosophy really well and I think he’s really balanced. He just has a really mature approach to everything he does and he’s a really, really quality hitter. We’re really, really excited every time he’s coming up to the plate with men on base I’ll tell you that.”
While Arizona’s offense has once again been elite so far in 2021, the Cats’ pitching and defense have not been on the same level (another common theme in recent years) and it will be those areas of the game that will really dictate whether Arizona is successful — both in Frisco this weekend and beyond.
Pitching-wise, the Cats aren’t horrible; they are currently 65th in the nation in team ERA (3.53) and also in the top 100 in strikeouts and hits allowed per nine innings. But the defensive numbers get ugly.
Arizona is 196th in the nation in fielding percentage (.953) due to 15 errors in eight games.
The Wildcats absolutely have to be better on defense if they have any serious aspirations of a College World Series run.
With pitching as important as ever heading into this weekend, Johnson pegged sophomore RHP Chase Silseth (2-0) as the starting pitcher in game one against Oklahoma, while stating that he and his assistant coaches hadn’t quite figured out plans on the mound for the rest of the tournament.
“We’ll start with Chase, he went last Thursday and it’s his turn to pitch,” Johnson said.
“The plan is to kind of stay on the same schedule that we have, but we’ll kind of convene as a staff and figure out where we’re going after Thursday. I would anticipate it remaining the same but we haven’t made a final decision on that.”
Since this is Arizona’s first time traveling, it will deal with significant COVID-19 protocols. Johnson said the team is using two buses at all times, that players and coaches will wear N-95 masks on the plane and when in public, and that all of their meals will be delivered to the hotel.
“We certainly want to keep as many team on the field as we possibly can,” Johnson said, noting that his players have already gotten used to restrictions such as not being able to use their locker room at Hi Corbett Field for extended periods of time.
“I think they’ve done a great job, it’s just one of those things where you never want to let your guard down. You’ve got to be very diligent in your efforts.”