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What to watch for when Arizona baseball opens home slate vs. West Virginia

arizona-wildcats-baseball-preview-west-virginia-mountaineers-hi-corbett-kiko-romero-chip-hale-2023 Arizona Athletics

The last time Arizona played at Hi Corbett Field, in mid-May last year, it wrapped up a series win over No. 2 Oregon State that helped lock up a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

But the Wildcats were only 20-11 at home in 2022, four more losses than the previous year (in seven fewer games) and the most since 2015.

The UA has 31 scheduled games at Hi Corbett this spring, including the next seven. The start of that homestand is a 3-game series with West Virginia that begins Friday night.

Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats take on the Mountaineers:

Hometown debuts

The bulk of Arizona’s roster is from California, while there are also sizable contingents from the Phoenix area and, strangely, Illinois. There are also four from the Tucson area, two of which will make their hometown collegiate debuts this weekend.

Kiko Romero and Mason White grew up in the shadow of UA, each attending games at Hi Corbett. White’s prep career ended with Salpointe Catholic in a state championship game last May, while Romero lost in the state semifinals with Canyon del Oro as a junior in 2017.

The journey back to Hi Corbett has been a lot longer for Romero than for White, a true freshman. This is Romero’s fourth college season, spending three at Central Arizona College, where last June he led the Vaqueros to the NJCAA World Series title and earned MVP honors by tying the tournament record with six home runs.

Recruited by the UA out of high school, Romero said JUCO was his best route due to academics. Now he’s got a second chance to play for the Wildcats.

“This has been dream school since I’ve grown up,” Romero said. “I’ve come to countless games as a kid, seeing like Nick Quintana, Tony Bullard is now on my team. It just means the world to me and my family. All the guys say it’s one of the most electric places to play in the Pac, and I believe it. Even our fall games are pretty packed up.”

Romero hit .366 with 25 homers last season for Central, but through the first weekend with Arizona he’s batting .200 with three hits, three walks and two RBI. He put the Wildcats up for good with a ninth-inning single against UC-San Diego on Monday, but overall believes he’s still getting used to Division I pitching.

“I’m struggling a little bit,” he said. “Jumping from JUCO to D1 is definitely a little incline. Struggling a little bit, me and (hitting coach) Toby DeMello have been talking about a lot of stuff, kind of changed some stuff over the weekend. I’m excited to get back in the cages and get this weekend going.”

While the bat is coming along slowly, Romero’s glove at first base is already in midseason form. He believes it’s what is keeping him in the lineup for the time being.

“He was a stopper on defense,” head coach Chip Hale said. “He took away a bunch of runs. He could play right field, too. He just made play after play to stop runs. Tommy Splaine came in last year and kind of solidified first base for us, but this is kind of a new level of defense for us.”

White, on the other hand, has looked great on offense and defense. He leads the team in walks (five) and on-base percentage (.500) and has shown great instincts at both second and third base despite not having played any fall or preseason games at third.

“He’s such a good athlete and doesn’t really panic, that we were fine putting him over there,” Hale said of White.

Same starters, but maybe some different relievers

Hale said junior right-hander TJ Nichols will start Friday night, while righty Tonko Susac and lefty Bradon Zastrow will follow. That trio combined to allow just five runs over 17.1 innings in their first starts, keeping the bullpen from getting overburdened right out of the gate.

That likely wouldn’t have happened anyway, since Hale said four pitchers he planned to use the first weekend didn’t get into a game because of the effectiveness of the starters. Righties Derek Drees, Hayden Lewis, Luke Moeller and Tony Pluta, all newcomers, figure to see action over the weekend or during a Tuesday game against Cal Baptist in which righty Aiden May is likely to get his second start.

Three other pitchers whom Arizona expects to play a big role this season will not be available, Hale said. Righty Cam Walty, a transfer from Nevada who shut out the Wildcats in Tucson last April, as well as righties Kenan Elarton and Josh Randall, remain out but are expected back before Pac-12 play begins in mid-March.

Home cooking

A solid number of UA fans attended one or more of the four games last weekend at the MLB Desert Invitational in Scottsdale and Mesa, though Tennessee’s fans outnumbered the Wildcats on opening night. That didn’t stop the “U of A!” chants from overpowering the Vol cheers in that 3-1 win over the preseason No. 2 team, and Arizona supporters were very vocal throughout the comeback win over UC-San Diego on Monday afternoon.

“Coming from a JUCO I didn’t really have a lot of fans, like diehard fans, and those guys showing for all four games, it was really cool,” Romero said.

Arizona averaged 3,233 fans at Hi Corbett last season, third-best in the Pac-12 and 24th-best nationally. It drew 2,766 for the home opener in 2022, a Tuesday night game.

“We have a great fan base,” Hale said. “We hope to use that to our advantage.”

A solid opponent

West Virginia (2-2) was picked to finish sixth among the nine Big 12 schools that sponsor baseball, a year after it went 32-22 but missed out on the NCAA Tournament. The Mountaineers opened this season by losing 2 of 3 at Georgia Southern, one of the better teams in the Sun Belt Conference, then won a midweek game at No. 13 Maryland.

Friday night starter Ben Hampton, a lefty, struck out eight over five innings in his first start, and five of the nine relievers West Virginia has used haven’t allowed a run.

“They got a lot of guys that throw from different angles, different speeds,” Hale said. “They have some big velocity guys. They have some guys that can trick you a little bit with the off speed stuff and come from different angles. So it’s going to be tough again for the offense, we’re going to have to really bear down with our scouting and getting them prepared. They’re gonna be scrappy.”