Arizona only played one SEC team this season, beating last-place Missouri at the Frisco Classic in Texas in early March. It’s opponent this weekend in the Super Regionals, Ole Miss, did not face the Tigers, so there are no common opponents between the Rebels and Wildcats.
Yet thanks to the massive exposure—overexposure?—that SEC teams seem to get on ESPN, UA coach Jay Johnson feels like he knows Ole Miss almost as well as a Pac-12 opponent.
“This particular year there’s a couple teams that seemed to be on TV a lot,” Johnson said Thursday. “I’d be casually watching them while I’m looking at video of our next opponent. It’s kind of interesting that we ended up meeting up because I feel like I knew a little bit more about their team because they had a lot of exposure.”
The Wildcats will hope that extra level of familiarity, as well as a homefield advantage and experience playing in the desert heat, will benefit them in the best-of-3 series that begins 6 p.m. PT Friday at Hi Corbett Field. An excessive heat warning is in effect from the Tucson area for much of the weekend, with the temperature at first pitch each night expected to be at or above 100 degrees.
While Ole Miss (44-20) is used to playing in hot, humid conditions, coach Mike Bianco said his team hasn’t dealt with that much of late because both the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama and the Oxford Regional were on the cooler side.
“We haven’t played any hot days yet,” Bianco said. “It was the coolest regional we’ve ever had. We really haven’t had that hot spell yet, so our guys haven’t really gotten into the heat since last summer. Thankfully we’re playing at night. The first thing that people tell you, before they even talk about Arizona’s offense, which is amazing because it’s really good, the first thing is you better hydrate now.”
Johnson isn’t putting much stock into the heat impacting things, but he’s still made sure to keep his players prepared for the conditions.
“We’ve instructed the players to do the things that they need to do protect themselves relative to rest, hydration, controlling their body temperatures,” he said. “We’re used to it, relative to being in this climate. Our team is ready to go, so I don’t think it’s going to have as big an impact as it might on the periphery.
“I don’t know the temperature difference between five days ago and now, it didn’t really seem to be a factor last weekend.”
Another place where Arizona figures to have an edge is in the field itself. Hi Corbett is arguably the largest college baseball park in the country in terms of its dimensions, stretching 366 feet down the left field line and 400-plus in both power alleys.
For comparison’s sake, Ole Miss’s Swayze Field is 330 down both lines, 365 in the alleys and 390 to center, while Hoover Metropolitan Park (the site of the SEC tourney) is 340 down the lines, 385 in the alleys and 405 to center.
Several times this season, including during regionals, opposing outfielders have struggled with balls hit to the wall in left and right field because they’ve had to cover so much ground to get back.
“We’re going to pay more attention to the lineup than the field,” said Ole Miss right-hander Derek Diamond, who is set to start Game 1.
Bianco echoed that sentiment while also raving at the strength of Arizona’s lineup.
“Their stat page is a little gaudy,” he said. “They probably mirror us more than anybody we played all year. They score runs because they can hit, they can really hit. One through nine, and even beyond that. When you look at their splits, they hit just well against righties as they do against lefties. We’re going to have our hands full as a pitching staff.”
Speaking of the UA lineup, though it hit .349 in the Tucson Regional that occurred without notable contributions from the Wildcats’ top hitters. Jacob Berry, Branden Boissiere and Daniel Susac were a combined 7 for 37 with 3 RBI last weekend.
Johnson felt like everyone contributed, though it doesn’t always show up on paper.
“We’re a team lineup, I mean that in every sense of the word,” Johnson said. “Everybody has a job and that job changes based on the inning, the score, where they hit in that particular inning. Whenever we have a player that we want to improve what they’re doing, we go to work on it. When you look at a stat sheet, you can be deceived out of what actually happened and if it’s a quality pitcher.”
Berry and Susac have seen their stout offensive numbers tail off in recent weeks. Does this mean the freshman phenoms might be wearing down after combining for 112 starts?
“I had a text message at 7:37 a.m. Monday morning after winning on Sunday night from Jacob Berry saying ‘can we hit?’,” Johnson said. “So I think they’re good, I think they’re ready to roll.”