clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Midwest recruiting pipeline paying early dividends for Arizona baseball

Illinois and Minnesota are becoming Wildcat Country

arizona-wildcats-baseball-preview-utah-utes-pac12-jackson-kent-trip-couch-recruiting-2023 Arizona Athletics

When Jackson Kent makes his first start at Hi Corbett Field on Friday night, the forecasted temperature at first pitch will be in the low- to mid-80s. That’s about 20 degrees warmer than back home in Northrbook, Ill., where over the weekend the high isn’t expected to get out of the 40s.

In case you needed one of many reasons why Kent, and several other current and near-future Arizona Wildcats, are playing in the desert rather than closer to their Midwest hometowns.

“Coming from the Midwest, it’s hard to play baseball,” said Kent, a redshirt freshman left-hander who will get his second Friday night start as Arizona opens a critical series with Utah. “We get to play in the winter but we’re inside the whole time. We have a different mentality against things, because we don’t have a lot of time to compete.”

Kent is one of seven players on the UA roster from either Illinois or Minnesota, five of whom signed with the Wildcats out of high school after Chip Hale was hired in July 2021, including freshman outfielder Brendan Summerhill and right-handed relievers Casey Hintz and Tony Pluta. Arizona also has two signees from the 2023 class from those states, including highly touted righty Blake Wolters, and a 2024 commitment (righty Ryan Anderson) from Chicago suburb Shorewood, Ill.

That pipeline is all the result of recruiting coordinator Trip Couch, who also managed to bring several Chicago-area prospects to South Carolina when he was there from 2017-21.

“That’s part of these recruiting deals, you have the connections with the summer teams and these guys who kind of run these cages and the labs,” Hale said of Couch. “He has a pretty good connection up there. He had it when he was at Houston and when he was at South Carolina. (Tucson is) a pretty attractive place to come when you’re from that environment.”

Kent had signed with Wisconsin-Milwaukee in November 2020 but said he was talked into reopening his recruitment after a strong senior year at Lake Park High School. He said Couch reached out to him, brought him to Tucson in July 2021 and the offer Arizona made was too good to pass up, even though it almost certainly meant he wasn’t going to pitch for the Wildcats until at least 2023.

That’s because Milwaukee refused to let Kent out of his National Letter of Intent, forcing him to redshirt last season.

“It was hard on me a little bit, but I think I made the right decision,” Kent said. “I’m in the right spot right now. I worked out with the team all last year, I threw bullpens, I did intrasquads whenever the team was gone. I’m probably at my best spot right now.”

Kent said he developed a cutter with pitching coach Dave Lawn during the redshirt year, a pitch he plans to use more now that he’s starting. His first nine appearances were out of the bullpen, four of which lasted three or more innings. He threw 4.1 innings of relief on April 6, striking out a career-high five, before taking over the Friday night starting slot last week at Washington State.

“TJ (Nichols) was our Friday night guy and things weren’t going so well, so now Jackson has kind of earned the chance to do it,” Hale said. “And he had a good outing up in Pullman against Washington State. In a perfect world, you are throwing the guy that you think can get the series off to a good start.”

Kent (0-0, 5.40) allowed three runs and five hits over 4.1 innings last Friday, leaving with a 3-2 lead but the tying run on second in the fifth. Nichols came in and allowed that run to score, as well as another in the fifth, as the Wildcats dropped the 11th of 12 consecutive Pac-12 road games before winning Sunday.

Arizona is 1-5 in conference series openers, compared to 2-4 in the middle game and 3-3 in finales, making for a 6-12 record in Pac-12 play. That puts the Wildcats in ninth place out of 11 teams, with the top nine finishers qualifying for the conference tournament next month in Scottsdale.

The UA has the tiebreaker over 10th-place Cal (5-13) thanks to its home sweep of the Golden Bears in March, and a series win over last-place Utah (4-13-1) would also go a long way to locking up a conference tourney bid. By the end of the weekend the Wildcats could be as high as seventh place, which would get them out of the conference tourney pool with the teams that finish first and second in the regular season.

“We have four series left in our league, so you think about winning two out of three in each of those series,” Hale said. “So that’s kind of our goal is, to just continue to win series. Obviously you don’t win the series without getting ready for the first game. So that’s all we’re worried about.”

More rotation changes coming?

Kent is the third different Game 1 starter Arizona has used this season, following righties Nichols and Tonko Susac, while lefty Bradon Zastrow and righty Bradon Zastrow have both made a team-high nine starts. Cam Walty has started the last two midweek games, throwing a combined 12 shutout innings including seven scoreless frames in Wednesday’s 20-0 win over ASU.

Hale has said Nichols will eventually get back into the starting rotation, but Walty’s two starts have thrown him into the weekend conversation.

“I think we’ll definitely next week (at Stanford) have him available, whether he starts or not,” Hale said. “And that means probably (next Tuesday) against New Mexico he’ll start but not pitch as long. We’ll make sure he’s definitely available for at least Saturday and Sunday.”

Utes coming in hot to Tucson

Arizona scored 20 runs against ASU, its most in the series since 1986 and most in any game for the Wildcats since a 20-2 win at Stanford in May 2021. The UA is now hitting .318, 14th-best in Division I, while its slugging percentage (.546) is 10th overall and its 8.3 runs per game ranks 33rd.

But despite the combined shutout by Walty and two relievers, the first Arizona has recorded since Garrett Irvin tossed a 3-hitter against UC-Santa Barbara in the NCAA regionals in 2021, the team ERA of 5.58 ranks 129th out 300-plus Division I programs. In Pac-12 play it’s 7.07, almost a full run worse than everyone else.

Enter Utah, which just scored 29 runs Tuesday at rival BYU (while allowing 14) and has scored 50 in its past three games. The Utes are hitting just .258 in the conference, averaging 5.1 runs per game, but have scored eight or more in seven Pac-12 games including three of the last four.

“We all have good offensive teams (in the Pac-12), we all know that,” Hale said. “They haven’t swung the bats like they think they could at the start of the year and they’re starting to do that. So they’re coming to a nice warm place to hit, so it should be an exciting series. Might be a lot of runs scored, we’ll see, but we’re hoping that our pitching keeps progressing. I think we’ve gotten better and better by the week.”

Arizona is 13-1 this season when scoring 10 or more runs, compared to 6-14 when playing single digits. The Wildcats have lost 11 in a row when failing to get to double digits on the scoreboard.