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NCAA Baseball: TCU’s run game to present major challenge for Arizona

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TCU’s nickname is the Horned Frogs, but they run like Sonoran black iguanas. For non-experts out there, that’s the fastest lizard on the planet, able to run up to 30 miles per hour.

Arizona’s opening opponent in the NCAA Baseball Tournament has stolen 129 bases this season, tied for eight-most in the country, and have been caught just 17 times. That’s the same number of times the Wildcats have been caught stealing, but on just 54 attempts.

Being able to slow down TCU’s run game will be a key part of Arizona’s gameplan, but coach Chip Hale said there’s a limit to how much focus his team will be on that area.

“When you play a team like this, the one thing I’ve learned is they’re gonna get their steals,” he said. “They are elite runners. And the best way to not let them steal is not let them get on base, but that’s not reality. They’re gonna get on, and one thing you can’t let it do is bother you.

“They still have to cross home plate.”

Six TCU players have at least 12 steals, with junior second baseman at the top of that list with 23 in 26 attempts. The Frogs (37-22) has stolen at least three bases in 21 games, going 16-5, but also 17 instances (and a 4-13 record) with zero steals.

Arizona (33-24) has allowed 54 steals on 69 attempts, with Cameron LaLiberte throwing out 10 of 23 potential base stealers. The Wildcats have picked off 15 runners, two by likely Friday starter Cam Walty.

“Controlling the run game is a big deal,” Walty said. “I mean, kind of mixing in your timing when you’re on the mound, if you’re not going to pick, if you’re not going to pitch, just kind of mixing that up to where you don’t get caught in the pattern.”

Walty will try to use the pitch clock to his advantage, varying how close to zero he gets before throwing to the plate. Just as long as he doesn’t change how he pitches once he’s begun his motion.

“Don’t change the way you pitch,” Hale said. “Sometimes pitchers get nervous, they try to be quicker. They throw more fastballs. We’ll stay with our game.”

Hale said TCU may try to intimidate Arizona early with its baserunning, something he saw on the regular when playing and coaching in the pros.

“I played against guys in professional baseball where you had a 4-game series, they will send everybody the first day so the rest of the series you’re freaked out and you don’t know what to do,” he said.

While Arizona’s 37 stolen bases were second-lowest in the Pac-12, and fewest of any team in the Fayetteville Regional, its usage of that part of the game has been very strategic. And, in some cases, instinctive, like with Nik McClaughry’s two straight steals of home at Oregon State and Stanford in the final two road series of the season.

No Arizona player had stolen home (without it being on the back end of a double steal) since 2015 before McClaughry did it twice. Neither were called by the coaching staff, that was all him.

“Just saying screw it and going,” McClaughry said when asked of his thought process. “There’s nothing much to really think about. I just talk to Toby (DeMello) at third base. I say, ‘can I go?’ And if he says yes that’s all that’s about.”

McClaughry said both situations came when either Chase Davis or Kiko Romero, power-hitting left-handed batters, were at the plate. That resulted in the third baseman playing way off the line as part of a shift, allowing McClaughry to take a big lead without fear of getting picked off.

“And that’s part of stealing bases,” Hale said. “We have guys that are a lot faster than Nik, but not too many that are as fearless as Nik.”