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Arizona baseball: Offense still a work in progress, but pitching looks much improved

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Arizona went 3-1 during the first weekend of the 2023 season, playing four games in four days at the MLB Desert Invitational in Scottsdale and Mesa. The highlight of the tourney was the opening-night win over Tennessee, ranked No. 2 in most preseason college baseball polls, but that was followed by a shutout loss to Fresno State before beating Michigan State and rallying (twice) past UC-San Diego.

The UA had the same record at this point a year ago, though it won its first three games at the College Baseball Showdown in Arlington, Texas before getting pummeled by Grand Canyon in its home opener on a Tuesday night.

“Last year we went 3-0 in Arlington, but I think we’re more prepared for the rest of the season based on what we did this weekend,” shortstop Nik McClaughry said. “I think it was a really good test for a lot of us, especially the younger guys. We got tested, we lost a game, but then found a way to win a game at the end.”

Monday’s 9-8 victory over UC-San Diego saw the Wildcats trail on two occasions, including once after head coach Chip Hale and third base coach Toby DeMello were ejected. Hale said the two tried to follow the remainder of the game via phone, one showing a livestream that kept cutting out and the other providing live stats.

“The live stats were way ahead,” Hale said. “I don’t really know how it ended up, but we knew we won.”

The nine runs in the finale were one fewer than it had combined in the first three games, including the 5-0 loss to Fresno State. For the season the Wildcats are hitting .248, far below last year’s .286 clip

“I don’t think offensively we’ve really gotten off yet,” Hale said of his offense. “We’re still kind of finding our way there with a lot of veteran hitters, so that’s something that I think is going to be exciting for the next couple of weeks, to see those guys kind of come alive. I think Nik sort of led the way for us. Chase (Davis) had the big day out against Michigan State, but we didn’t really sustain anything a whole lot.”

Arizona’s pitching, on the other hand, was solid throughout the weekend, particularly the starters. TJ Nichols had arguably the best start of his career against Tennessee, then Tonko Susac, Bradon Zastrow and Aiden May all looked good in their outings. They combined for 21 1/3 innings, despite each being on 90-pitch limits, then seven of the 10 relief appearances were scoreless.

Hale said he anticipated having to use all available pitchers during the 4-game weekend but ended up not getting four of them in.

“I think that one thing we learned was our pitching was really, really good,” he said. “It was outstanding.”

Arizona plays its next seven games at Hi Corbett Field, beginning with a 3-game set Friday through Sunday against West Virginia. The Wildcats then host Cal Baptist next Tuesday, followed by three the first weekend of March against North Dakota State.