OMAHA — When Jay Johnson and the Arizona Wildcats arrived in Omaha earlier this week, the coach couldn’t help but think back to the last time he’d been in Nebraska in June, even if it did end on a down note.
“That was obviously a great experience,” Johnson said Friday of the 2016 UA team that reached the College World Series championship series, where it lost in three games to Coastal Carolina. “I mean, we did everything in that tournament except get one more base hit to win the national championship. Very proud of how that team competed. They were definitely worthy of being here.
“I have the same types of feelings about this team.”
Five years later, the Wildcats are back in Nebraska’s largest city hoping to make it one step further. They begin that quest at 4 p.m. PT Saturday against Vanderbilt, the defending national champions. The Commodores (45-15) won the 2019 title and have played for the CWS title four times since 2014.
“Right now they are the kings of college baseball in terms of on-the-field results, how their program has operated and run over a long period of time,” Johnson said. “We have a ton of respect for those guys. Their roster is talented. They’re extremely well-coached. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Here’s what to look for when Arizona takes on Vandy:
Arizona’s bats vs. Vanderbilt’s arms
Arizona (45-16) comes to the CWS leading the nation in hits, runs, doubles and triples but will face one of two Vandy starting pitchers that are expected to go in the first round of the MLB Draft next month. It will most likely be junior RHP Kumar Rocker, who is 13-3 with a 2.46 ERA and 155 strikeouts in 106 innings, but the Commodores (45-15) could also go with sophomore righty Jack Leiter—the son of former major league pitcher Al Leiter—who is 10-3 with a 2.16 ERA and 156 Ks in 96 innings.
“They’re really good pitchers,” UA first baseman Branden Boissiere said. “They throw all their pitches for strikes. We’ve been watching a lot of video trying to incorporate into our practices. I feel like we’re ready for what they have in store for us.”
The UA hasn’t seen a pitcher as dominant as Rocker or Leiter, but it has faced good ones. In the regionals it faced UC Santa Barbara righty Michael McGreevy, another projected first-round pick, getting two runs and seven hits off him in six innings, and in early May tagged Stanford righty Brendan Beck—the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year, who is likely to start for the Cardinal in Saturday’s CWS opener against NC State—for four runs and seven hits in 6.1 innings.
And in the Super Regional loss to Ole Miss, Arizona’s patience at the plate forced Ole Miss lefty Doug Nikhazy to throw 122 pitches in just 5.1 IP.
“We have a great offensive plan throughout the whole year, so I think it’s going to be a fun matchup for us,” center fielder Donta’ Williams said.
While some consider Arizona’s offensive stats a fluke, or the byproduct of playing in the Pac-12, Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin isn’t discounting the Wildcats’ numbers.
“There’s a lot of run production throughout the lineup,” he said. “If you look at all nine guys, you have to be inclusive of all nine guys, because there may be one, two guys that might be different than the rest, but they’re part of the rest. If you start at the top and work down, I mean, it’s very potent. The guy at the top is very good. (Jacob) Berry is not a freshman, he’s not typically not a two-hole hitter. When you hit 17 home runs and drive 70-plus RBIs, that’s not usually statistically what a two-hole hitter looks like. They all produce. You pile them up together. The combination of left-handed hitting, some quality right-handed bats with strength, with average, with pretty good plus-minus in terms of walk to strike-out. These guys are very difficult to get out.”
What about Arizona’s starters?
Arizona’s team ERA is 4.43, which ranks 69th—nice—in the country but only sixth in the eight-team CWS field. The Wildcats’ ERA in the postseason is 4.25, though starting pitchers Chase Silseth and Garrett Irvin have had rough outings.
Silseth, the likely Game 1 starter, has allowed seven runs and 15 hits in just 7.2 innings over two outings, while Irvin followed up a 3-hit shutout of UC Santa Barbara by lasting just 1.1 innings against Ole Miss.
Johnson isn’t worried, though.
“We’re not in Omaha without the starting pitchers doing what they’ve done to this point in the season,” he said. “No secret Garrett didn’t have a great outing last week. Chase has had a couple bumps here lately. But they possess some of the things that I just mentioned in describing our opponent’s pitching staff. And the best thing that those guys, their best quality, is what’s inside them in terms of their competitiveness, their drive, their winning-type quality where they found a way when they haven’t always been their best. I don’t think either of those guys or any of our pitchers, like, this will be too much for them. I think this team has responded to everything thrown at them. Really looking forward to the guys that take the mound for our team and how they, I won’t call it rise to the occasion, but how they handle themselves in this environment because we have a lot of trust in them.”
If Silseth or Irvin struggles early, Johnson won’t hesitate to make a change. Even with lefty relievers Randy Abshier and Gil Luna suspended, the Wildcats still have plenty of options, including several arms that have been starters and can go 3-plus innings. Freshmen Chandler Murphy and TJ Nichols have combined to allow three runs in 12.2 innings of relief in three postseason appearances.
Starting at the top
Both Arizona and Vanderbilt have dynamic leadoff hitters who are also outstanding center fielders.
Vandy’s Enrique Bradfield Jr., the SEC Freshman of the Year, is hitting .356 and has stolen 46 bases in 52 attempts. He swiped four in the regional final against Georgia Tech.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen 46 (steals) on a stat sheet,” Johnson said, laughing. “He can be disruptive. He will run at any time, no outs, no strikes, two outs, two strikes, and everything in between. We’re going to have to do a good job. Obviously the best thing you can do is keep him off base. That will be the focus. If we can do that, then we’re not threatened by the running game with him.”
Countering him is Williams, who brings a 47-game on-base streak into the opener. If he reaches safely against Vandy he’ll tie Zach Gibbons’ mark from 2016 which is the longest in school history during the StatCrew era that began in 1998.
For the season, Williams is hitting .352 with eight home runs and 48 RBI, going 13 for 27 with two homers and seven RBI in the postseason.
“They like to call me the ‘Engine,’” Williams said. “Whatever I can do to get on base, base hit, walk, hit by a pitch, free bases, whatever, that’s what I like to do. I know my game, whatever helps the team, I do it.”
Which lineup will Arizona use?
Other than left field, where Mac Bingham’s hand injury in late May has led Arizona to use several players at that position, the rest of the lineup has exactly the same since Tony Bullard took over at third base and Nik McClaughry moved to shortstop.
But not the order of that lineup, which other than Williams at No. 1 and McClaughry at No. 9 has seen numerous iterations. The most recent, against Ole Miss last Sunday, saw Bullard in the No. 4 spot for the first time this season.
The Wildcats cranked out 20 hits, tying their season high, in a 16-3 win.
“What is good about our lineup is there are no breaks,” Johnson said. “The spot in the batting order is only relevant to the lineup card, but your job changes. There are eight or nine leadoff guys in a game. They are the leadoff hitter each inning it comes up. They have a job to do. I have confidence in all those guys. The tweak certainly worked well against Ole Miss on Sunday night. We’ll look at this game and decide what’s best and go with that.”
West Coast, Best Coast
Other than outfielder Tyler Casagrande and reliever Vince Vannelle, the rest of Arizona’s postseason roster comes from the western half of the United States. Not the same for Vandy, which has a truly national roster that includes five players from California and one from Washington.
Arizona’s Super Regional opponent, Ole Miss, had three Californians on the team, while CWS participants North Carolina State and Virginia also have two players apiece from the Golden State.
Asked if more Eastern college baseball teams are starting to recognize the quality of talent out West, Johnson simply said “they should be.”
Not surprisingly, several of the West Coast players on Vandy and Ole Miss are ones Johnson tried to recruit to Arizona. Last week, after Ole Miss freshman Jacob Gonzalez tore apart the Wildcats, Johnson bluntly said “I wish he was at Arizona,” and on Friday he said he also tried to get Vandy CF Bradfield and shortstop Carter Young, even sharing the inadvertent workout he got in his failed attempt to land the Selah, Wash., native.
“At the house I used to rent, we had a small pool in the backyard,” he said. “I stayed on the phone with him and walked around the pool for 80 laps, and I couldn’t get him to say yes. So it will be fun seeing him on the field.”