When Arizona started the 2021 season out with two losses in its first three games, all at home, it naturally raised some eyebrows. Was this just the product of needing to shake off nearly a year of real-game rust, or was this strongly hyped team not as good as expected?
What a difference two weeks makes.
Arizona (10-2) is riding a nine-game win streak, the last four victories coming by a combined score of 55-26 in sweeping through the Frisco College Baseball Classic in Texas. The Wildcats beat Oklahoma twice, dropping 20 in the tournament opener, then dispatched Dallas Baptist and Missouri to finish out the weekend.
Here’s what we learned about the UA from its performance in Frisco:
Arizona’s offense isn’t just about good swings
UA coach Jay Johnson didn’t mince words when he referred to his team as having “the best offense in college baseball right now.” It’s hard to argue with the numbers they’ve put up, not just in Frisco but for the whole season.
Arizona is hitting .336 as a team, with three regulars batting over .400, and are averaging 9.7 runs per game. But even more impressive has been the Wildcats’ plate discipline, as through 12 games they have drawn more walks (91) than been struck out (88).
In Frisco they walked 32 times against 24 strikeouts. And it wasn’t like they were facing weak pitching.
“Every guy in the scouting report was 92 to 95 (mph),” Johnson said. “But our hitters were completely unfazed by that and just kept taking professional at-bats. Each guy getting the quality at-bat to (get the) chain going, allowing the next guy to be in a position to be successful, made it really difficult on these pitching staffs here. In each game it was almost surprising when we didn’t score, to be honest with you, with how locked in these guys were.”
Sophomore Branden Boissiere was 9 for 17 in Frisco, raising his average to .500, while sophomore Ryan Holgate had seven hits, seven RBI (giving him a team-best 18 for the season) and six runs scored and freshman Jacob Berry doubled his season RBI total by knocking in eight in those four games.
It’s relief pitching by committee, a big committee
Arizona has used the same four starting pitchers each of the first three weekends, and that quartet is 7-0 with a 4.35 ERA and 58 strikeouts against 24 walks in 58 innings. Take out sophomore Chase Silseth’s “take one for the team” outing in Thursday’s 20-13 win over Oklahoma, when he was tagged for 10 runs in 4.1 innings, and the numbers would be even better.
They don’t have to be great with Arizona’s offense, but Johnson is still hoping for improvement from those starters. It helps, though, that he’s found himself plenty of viable relief options.
“I think you’re gonna see it shape up maybe a little differently than we anticipated, with guys chopping up smaller segments of the game and going for it,” he said. “I think if you have depth, that’s something you can certainly do and I believe that will be the strength of the pitching staff.”
While veterans Ian Churchill, Preston Price and Vince Vannelle have been at the forefront of the bullpen, throwing a combined 22.2 innings with only six earned runs allowed, some new faces are getting turned to more often.
Transfer Austin Smith pitched twice in Frisco, striking out four in 1.1 innings, as did freshmen Riley Cooper and Trevor Long, both of whom only had one appearance in the first two weekends.
And sophomore Quinn Flanagan has solidified himself as Arizona’s long man, striking out eight over the final three innings of Saturday’s 15-8 win over Dallas Baptist to give him two saves.
“I really originally believed that would be the strength of this year’s team, and still may be,” Johnson said. “We needed to get them in order and. And we’ve done a much better job of that here recently.”
Comebacks are becoming commonplace
Arizona trailed Oklahoma 9-3 in the opener and then outscored the Sooners 17-4. Saturday saw the Wildcats trail Dallas Baptist 7-5 before outscoring their opponent 10-1 the rest of the way.
The Wildcats also rallied in one of their wins over Southeastern Louisiana the weekend before.
No sweat, Johnson said.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to be out of any game,” he said. “We have some players that have enough experience now to know that the most important thing is just to get to the next pitch. A baseball game is gonna be decided on six or seven pitches throughout the game, you don’t always know when they’re coming. So, if you’re just focused on the one that’s in front of you, it gives you a chance to be at your best when those pitches come along.”
Defensive miscues are on the decline
After committing 15 errors in its first seven games, Arizona has had only two miscues in the past five. The Wildcats have only allowed one unearned run during that span, compared to nine before that.
Johnson said the improvement has been the byproduct of his fielders putting in more time at making the routine plays, and doing so at fewer positions.
“We’re not moving anybody around,” he said, noting that sophomores Jacob Blas and Kobe Kato are locked in at shortstop and second base, respectively.
Third base and right field are the only spots where multiple players started in Frisco.