When Chip Hale was hired to coach his alma mater, he inherited a roster that featured some key pieces from Arizona’s College World Series team as well as some unproven reserves and a few key newcomers.
And an undersized middle infielder who no one really knew much about, but who has become one of the Wildcats’ most consistent players.
Second baseman Garen Caulfield enters the final weekend of the regular season hitting .282 with 15 extra-base hits and 31 RBI, recording nine hits during a 7-game hit streak while going errorless in his last eight (the same number of consecutive games the UA has gone without an error).
Not bad for a guy who, when he joined the program last fall, hadn’t played in a game that counted in three years.
A third-year “freshman,” Caulfield spent the previous two years at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, Calif. He was set to redshirt in 2020 before that season was canceled due to COVID, then his school was also forced to cancel the 2021 season.
“A bunch of other schools around our area actually played a couple (games), a shortened season,” Caulfield said. “With COVID it was just a bad county to be in.”
That meant two years of nothing but practice and intrasquad games, along with summers playing in the low-level Arizona Collegiate Wood Bat League just to get in at-bats.
“That’s pretty much all we did,” he said. “We would play, just like a normal series here, like we’d play Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, because we practiced Monday through Friday. So we’d just treat those as our games, essentially.”
Caulfield was not part of Arizona’s 2021 signing class when it was announced in November 2020. He was a late addition, brought in by former pitching coach Nate Yeskie despite not being specifically recruited.
“He was just looking for a shortstop or a middle infielder and I happened to be the guy at Delta at the time, and that’s kind of how that all happened,” said Caulfield, who visited the UA last April during a home sweep of USC but couldn’t do an “official” visit due to COVID recruiting restrictions. “I didn’t really have too many other options, to be honest with you. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I love it here.”
Caulfield has started 48 games, 33 at second and 15 at third. He played shortstop in high school and at Delta, but with Nik McClaughry holding down that position he was penciled in at second to start this season. Tony Bullard’s shoulder less injury a week before the season opener resulted in him playing at third early on, but his last 23 appearances have been at second.
Most of Caulfield’s team-high 13 errors came early in the season at third, while the ones at second have mostly been a product of adjusting to being on the opposite side of the base from short.
“Second base, you just have a couple extra responsibilities,” he said. “Shortstop is definitely a harder position, I’d say, but second base is just different because of the different plays you’ve got.”
As much as Caulfield has helped solidify Arizona’s infield defense—the eight consecutive errorless game is the longest stretch for the program since at least 1997—it’s his bat that has provided the biggest boost. Listed at 5-foot-9, Caulfield has hit as high as fifth in the order but is mostly in the No. 8 or No. 9 spot.
He’s hitting .320 with runners in scoring position, .379 in 2-out RISP situations including a 2-out, 2-run single in Sunday’s 10-5 series-clinching win over No. 2 Oregon State, and has 11 RBI in 11 bases-loaded plate appearances.
“When he hits the ball where it’s pitched, and doesn’t try to steer it a certain way, he’s really good hitter,” Hale said. “All numbers put together he was our best hitter in the fall.”
Caulfield’s lone home run came April 26 at New Mexico State in a 4 for 4 game. Since then he’s hit .314 with four doubles, five RBI and five runs scores.
“I’m a smaller guy, and I’m not going to be hitting the ball out of the ballpark consistently like Chase (Davis) or some of those other guys,” he said. “I give credit to hitting coaches here. I’ve worked really hard at just kind of staying consistent with my game and not trying to get too big. I’m just trying to be myself up there and I feel I feel like that’s something I do really well and I want to continue to do.”