The 2023 college baseball season begins across the country Friday, with more or less all 301 Division I teams in action. Seven of those clubs, including Arizona, are participating in the MLB Desert Invitational this weekend in the Phoenix area.
The Wildcats will play four games in four days, two at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale and two at Sloan Park in Mesa:
- Friday vs. Tennessee (6 p.m. MT, MLB Network/MLB.com)
- Saturday vs. Fresno State (1 p.m. MT, MLB.com)
- Sunday vs. Michigan State (6 p.m. MT, MLB.com)
- Monday vs. UC San Diego (1 p.m. MT, MLB.com)
Here’s what to watch for from the UA’s opening weekend of play:
A dynamite debut
Arizona also began last season in a tournament, going 3-0 at the State Farm College Baseball Showdown in Arlington, Texas. That field included a ranked Texas Tech squad as well as eventual College World Series runner-up Oklahoma, but the Wildcats’ first game was against a Kansas State team that would finish .500 for the year.
This year’s opening opponent, Tennessee, went 57-9 a year ago and begins 2023 as the No. 2 team in D1Baseball.com’s preseason poll.
“It’s an easy way to get the guys motivated, let’s put it that way,” coach Chip Hale said. “The minute they saw they’re playing Tennessee, they were pumped, so it should be a fun game.”
The Volunteers are expected to start junior right-hander Chase Dollander, who is No. 2 on MLB Pipeline’s list of top 2023 draft prospects. He was 10-0 with a 2.39 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 79 innings last season.
Arizona will send out junior righty TJ Nichols, who is 69th on the MLB Pipeline list. He was 6-4 with a 5.50 ERA in 2022, mostly as the No. 1 starter, but struggled with both consistency and the ability to go deep in games.
“He had some fantastic starts and he had some that were not so memorable,” Hale said.
Also on the MLB Pipeline list in the opener are Arizona outfielder Chase Davis (No. 51) and Tennessee shortstop Maui Ahuna (No. 22).
The rest of the field
The MLB Invitational is a 7-team event, but Arizona won’t face Michigan or Grand Canyon over the weekend. It will play three mid-week games against GCU this season, hosting the Antelopes on March 28 and going to Phoenix for single games Feb. 27 and May 2.
Fresno State, Saturday’s opponent, was 27-28 a year ago and saw its longtime coach, Mike Batesole, retired in December after 20 seasons including the 2008 CWS title. Interim coach Ryan Overland inherits a squad that’s picked to finish in the middle of the Mountain West Conference.
Michigan State, 24-30 in 2022, has the No. 44 MLB Pipeline prospect in shortstop Mitch Jebb, who hit .356 last season. And UC-San Diego, 24-32 last season, is led by preseason Big West all-conference outfielder Jalen Smith.
The UA returns seven position starters from last year’s 39-25 team that reached the Coral Gables regional final, losing to eventual national champion Ole Miss. The biggest hole to fill is at catcher, where returners Cameron LaLiberte and Tommy Splaine will split time as co-successors to All-American and first-round pick Daniel Susac.
First base and right field are the most likely spots with new faces, as junior college transfers Kiko Romero and Emilio Corona, respectively, are in line to start. Freshman Mason White, a Tucson native, could be the DH and can also play middle infield.
The likely pitching rotation for the weekend features at least one newcomer in lefty Bradon Zastrow, a Pima College transfer who Hale said earned the starting gig but may end up being a reliever that can pitch in multiple games in a weekend.
“He has been as good as anybody in the preseason,” Hale said.
Hale said he’s going to do his best to play as many of his freshmen as possible early in the season, but at the same time he learned quickly in his first year on the job that every game matters when it comes to Arizona’s postseason resume.
“We can’t just punt a game,” he said. “You have to try to find a way to win, because the RPI pretty much controls the playoffs and where you go and the seedings, so you want to win every game you can win here. I think we’ll get some younger guys in there early in the year. But again, we’re playing to win every game, and who’s earned those jobs through the fall program, and then the preseason intrasquads, they’re going to get the bulk of the playing time.”
Arizona will unveil a fourth uniform combination this weekend, an all-white set that is modeled after the 1986 national championship team that Hale was a member of. The Wildcats’ other white uniforms have pinstripes, while these are a solid white, and unlike the other three combos has the players’ names on the back.
⚪️ for 2023… throwing it back to our 1986 National Championship look with the all-white unis #BearDown pic.twitter.com/dgLam0rjnu— Arizona Baseball (@ArizonaBaseball) January 10, 2023
“I’ve never had a jersey with my last name, so I thought that was pretty cool,” senior reliever Chris Barraza said.
Added sophomore second baseman Garen Caulfield: “I personally love them. I come from a junior college who wasn’t privileged enough to have that many uniforms and the nice stuff. I think it’s cool that we have a throwback kind of idea, and I think that’s awesome because Chip’s here now.”