In his first year coaching his alma mater, Chip Hale was forced to lean heavily on the veterans he inherited. His second Arizona team will also be an experienced squad, but not just with college baseball.
“I’ve had one whole year with this group,” Hale said Tuesday at Arizona’s preseason press conference. “You feel like you know the team a lot better for sure.”
Arizona opens the 2023 season on Friday in Scottsdale against Tennessee, the No. 2 team in D1Baseball’s preseason poll. The game is part of the MLB Desert Invitational, a 4-day tournament that will also see the Wildcats face Fresno State, Michigan State and UC San Diego.
Picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 this season, Arizona is not ranked in any preseason polls despite reaching the NCAA Tournament regional finals last June. That’s most likely due to the departure of some key members of the 2022 squad, most notably catcher Daniel Susac, right field Tanner O’Tremba and pitchers Quinn Flanagan and Garrett Irvin.
The catching job is expected to be shared by junior Cameron LaLiberte and sophomore Tommy Splaine, while junior college transfer Emilio Corona is in line to take over RF. First base, where Splaine played last year, is expected to be handled by JUCO star Kiko Romero, but Arizona has options at that position and almost everywhere else thanks to increased depth.
“We have a lot more depth this year,” Hale said. “Last year we had guys that we added to the team in our fall just so we had enough guys to play games.”
Nowhere will Arizona have more options than on the mound. Eight of the 13 pitchers who appeared in 10 or more games a year ago are back, and the Wildcats added several quality arms via the JUCO ranks or from the NCAA transfer portal. The former includes left-hander Bradon Zastrow, who is penciled in as the Sunday starter for this weekend behind righties TJ Nichols and Anthony ‘Tonko’ Susac, while former Nevada righty Cam Walty—who shut out Arizona at Hi Corbett Field last April—and ex-Butler righty Derek Drees—are both expected to have big roles.
Hale said he’s “1,000 times” more comfortable with his pitching staff going into this season, despite having a few arms unavailable for the opening weekend due to minor injuries.
“We’re way more comfortable, let’s put it that way,” he said. “We’re not going to have at least two of the guys to pitch this weekend, and we still feel real good about playing four games.”
Nichols is expected to face off against Tennessee righty Chase Dollander, who is ranked No. 2 on the MLB Pipeline list of top 2023 draft prospects. UA outfielder Chase Davis is No. 51, while Nichols is No. 71 but figures to rise on draft boards as the season progresses if he can improve his consistency.
“He had some fantastic starts and he had some that were not so memorable,” Hale said of Nichols, who last year as the No. 1 starter was 6-4 with a 5.50 ERA. “The Friday night guy, if it is him, when we start the season in the Pac-12 against California, if it is TJ one thing that we need to see out of them is the ability to go deeper in games. We can’t be using our whole bullpen in the first night. He knows it, he’s been prepped on it. He’s got enough stuff to go deep, so we’ll see how it works out.”
Susac, the cousin of the former UA catcher, is now more than two years removed from major elbow surgery that cost him his senior year of high school. Though he said his arm felt healthy last spring, the results were not.
“I I got hit around pretty hard last year,” said Susac, who had an 8.81 ERA in 47 innings, with opposing batters hitting .332. “I couldn’t look myself in the mirror and go yeah, no, I’m fine. Like let’s just go roll into next season. I know I had to change something. I think at one point you got to look into the mirror and say ... what are you gonna do now? What can you change? You gotta pretty honest with yourself and say I was pretty bad at this. So let’s attack this. If this is my weakness, how are we gonna go make it my strength.”
Susac says he feels like a new person going into his second college season, the product of spending the entire offseason working on his body.
“I think my worst outing this fall (and) this spring is better than my best outing last spring,” he said. “I feel like everything that was going good last year has gotten even better this year, and all my weaknesses, I’ve made significantly better.”
Also physically revamped is senior righty reliever Chris Barraza, who held hitters to a team-best .212 average last year but also walked 18 in 24.1 innings and dealt with what he called a “lackadaisical” arm that impacted his focus when his velocity would waver greatly from one outing to another.
“It was kind of like an on and off situation, where I would be throwing low to mid-90s and then the next outing I would be like high to low 80s,” he said. “I feel at times it was more mental than physical, which I’ve gotten a lot better this year with that. And just as a whole my body feels amazing. My mindset is 10 times better than it was last year.”
Arizona went 39-25 in 2022, but after starting 21-7 (and 9-3 in Pac-12 play) it went 18-18 the rest of the way. As important as the opening weekend will be for the Wildcats’ postseason resume, the ultimate goal is to be playing their best baseball down the stretch.
“We started so hot last year,” Hale said. “I felt like we we started the year so hot and then we kind of hit a little bit of a bump in the middle of the Pac-12 (season). We’re okay, obviously winning. I’m never gonna say we don’t want to win, but let’s maybe hit our stride a little later in the year and make sure our pitching is a little healthier going into the playoffs. So we’ve tried to do our best to get the guys ready. We played a bunch more intrasquads, more innings, we’ve stretched our pitchers out a little bit longer, and used more guys.”