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Pitching, defense take on bigger roles as Arizona baseball opens Chip Hale era

arizona-wildcats-baseball-season-preview-2022-pitching-defense-chip-hale-daniel-susac-nik-mcclaughry Arizona Athletics

There was no better offense in college baseball last season than the one put out by Arizona, which led the nation in runs, doubles and triples and was fourth in batting average.

A large chunk of that production has moved on, though, either to the professional rankings or following former coach Jay Johnson to LSU. What remains is a solid offense, but one that may not be able to carry the Wildcats as much as it did in 2021 en route to the program’s 18th trip to the College World Series.

When the 2022 season begins Friday, against Kansas State at the State Farm College Baseball Showdown in Arlington, Texas, how Arizona fares on the mound and in the field will be just as important as what it does at the plate.

“This first weekend tell us a lot,” said Chip Hale, the former UA star who will be making his collegiate coaching debut after coaching throughout pro baseball, including stints as manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tucson Sidewinders.

Among those gone from last year’s squad are first baseman Branden Boissiere, right fielder Ryan Holgate, second baseman Kobe Kato and center fielder Donta’ Williams, all of whom were selected in the 2021 MLB Draft, and third baseman/DH Jacob Berry, who transferred to LSU.

That quintet combined for 60 percent of Arizona’s home runs, 55 percent of the RBI and 58 percent of both the hits and runs scored in 2021. With those guys powering an offense that averaged more than 8 runs per game, the Wildcats could afford to give up some runs and overlook a fairly high number of mistakes on defense.

Not anymore, particularly on defense no that the team is coached by a former Major League infielder.

“We just need to play catch,” Hale said. “It’s the most important thing. It sounds very simple, and fundamentally there’s a lot of things I teach. But really, it comes down to just playing catch. Catching the ground ball and getting it to first, or getting the ball from in the outfield and getting into home plate or third base on the cutoff and relay. It’s just unacceptable when we can make routine plays, right? We’re not asking anybody to make plays, the highlight reel plays. The routine plays have to be made.”

Arizona committed 78 errors in 63 games last season, tied for ninth-most in the country, which contributed to 54 unearned runs.

“We work a lot on our throwing program before practice, and we’ve got a huge improvement,” said shortstop Nik McClaughry, who took over that position in mid-March and committed just five errors in 153 chances. “Because defense is all about playing catch. You can field the ground ball, but the throw is the most important part. Anybody can feel a ground ball, but not everyone can make strong accurate throws. So I think that’s something that we’re all really working on this year.”

Catcher Daniel Susac, the reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and a unanimous preseason All-American, has loved the increased emphasis on fielding during practice.

“I feel like last year we did some fielding, but I feel like this year it’s more detail-oriented in warmups, which leads to a more smooth and even more efficient fielding practice,” he said. “What I like a lot is in practices we’ll do a lot of situations. Maybe infield outfield hitting balls in the gaps, little relay drills, trying to race to see which team can win. I like just making the most competitive atmosphere at practice every day.”

The Wildcats’ pitching staff had a respectable 4.60 ERA, striking out a school-record 590 batters, but it also lost some key contributors such as No. 1 starter Chase Silseth and back-end relievers Riley Cooper, Preston Price and Vince Vannelle.

Sophomore right-hander TJ Nichols will begin as the UA’s Friday starter, opening up against Kansas State, with senior lefty Garrett Irvin going Saturday against Oklahoma. The Sunday starter could be junior righty Quinn Flanagan, sophomore righty Dawson Netz or freshman righty Anthony ‘Tonko’ Susac, Daniel’s cousin.

Sophomore righty Chandler Murphy, who went 7-0 last season, is currently unavailable due to an arm injury that limited him in fall practice.

Hale said he and pitching coach Dave Lawn plan to “piggyback” starters during the opening weekend, since none are stretched out enough to go beyond 70 or 80 pitches, so multiple figure to go each day.

Arizona has its home opener Tuesday against Grand Canyon, though, followed by a 4-game series at Hi Corbett Field against Wisconsin-Milwaukee starting two days later, so there will be plenty of opportunities right away to see how the starters fare. Same for the bullpen, which outside of senior lefty Holden Christian—a transfer from Loyola Marymount—is lacking in experience.

“The difference between when I played here and now is we only have three weeks until we start conference play,” Hale said. “So we have to have a pretty good idea going into it, who our starters are, who our relievers are. When (our) pitchers face our hitters, what we’ve noticed, is I think we walk more guys than we will when we face outside competition, because they’ve seen these guys so much. And there’s a fear factor in there, with some of our big boys. We saw in the fall ball, when we faced outside competition those guys had no issues. So I’m assuming our pitching will throw more strikes when we face the outside competition, that’s a little bit of a concern for us so far.”

State Farm College Showdown info

Where: Globe Life Field; Arlington, Texas.

When: Friday-Sunday

Teams participating: Arizona, Auburn, Kansas State, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas Tech

Arizona’s schedule: Friday vs. Kansas State (2 p.m. MT); Saturday vs. Oklahoma (6 p.m. MT); Sunday vs. Texas Tech (1:30 p.m. MT)

Viewing info: All games are streamed live on FloBaseball (subscription required)