Arizona’s home debut under Chip Hale was a forgettable one, losing by 16 to Grand Canyon. But since then the Wildcats have run off five straight, most recently a 10-inning victory over Dixie State on Tuesday.
At 8-1, the UA has matched the best 9-game start in school history under a first-year coach, and with four more games on this 10-game homestand it can surpass Andy Lopez’s 11-1 start in 2002.
For that to happen, though, Arizona will need to continue having its pitchers throw strikes while getting its hitters to swing at fewer balls.
Arizona’s ERA is 3.51, with the staff issuing fewer than three walks per nine innings while averaging more than 10.5, including 17 against Dixie State on Tuesday. The bullpen has been especially strong, with five relievers posting ERAs below 2.00.
“I thought when I first came and looked at the arms on video and talked to (pitching coach) Dave Lawn about it, I thought that would be one of our strengths,” Hale said. “Not only are they pitching and throwing strikes, but they’re able to come back. So you’re seeing guys pitch maybe back to back (games), maybe a day after another two innings and they wait a day and pitch it third day. So that’s important with a bullpen, you can’t just have a guy that pitches once in the weekend. That’s starting to get going.”
Hale said a concern heading into the season was his pitchers walking too many guys, though he attributed some of that to the plate discipline of Arizona’s hitters. Yet in the games that count, the Wildcat batters have been far less disciplined.
A year after striking out a school-record 501 times in 63 games, an average of 7.96 per game, Arizona is averaging 10.3 strikeouts at the plate.
“A lot of times it’s just about recognizing strikes,” Hale said. “It’d be one thing if we’re swinging through balls that are in the zone, but we’re really swinging at a lot of pitches that are not hittable, so guys are learning. It gets rough at times, but you got to give them a little rope. And they have to understand that just because you strike out a couple times you’re not going to get yanked out of the game.”
Arizona is hitting .317 with runners in scoring position, matching its overall batting average, but it has more strikeouts (46) than hits (40) in those situations.
“A lot of it has to do with the mental preparation, and we work with that on a daily, hourly basis with these guys because a lot of it is just confidence,” Hale said.
Hale pointed to Chase Davis drawing a bases-loaded walk to bring home the winning run in extra innings on Tuesday as a good sign. Davis was down 1-2 in the count.
“Drawing a walk just seems innocuous ... but for him, to lay off bad pitches is really important,” Hale said. “So that’s kind of what we’re trying to drill home to everybody.”