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Emilio Corona among several JUCO finds bolstering Arizona baseball

Wildcats take break from Pac-12 this weekend, hosting Air Force

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Recruiting is all about connections, and in college baseball it doesn’t hurt to have some top-tier junior college programs in your backyard.

Arizona’s starting first baseman, Kiko Romero, played about an hour north of Tucson at Central Arizona College last season, while two of the Wildcats’ three weekend starting pitchers—Aiden May and Braden Zastrow—spent last year about 20 minutes west of Hi Corbett Field at Pima Community College.

That’s also where outfielder Emilio Corona played in 2022, after beginning his career at Washington, and he may end up being the biggest find of the UA’s JUCO group.

Corona won the Golden Spikes Award Performance of the Week on Wednesday after he slugged three home runs and drove in eight of Arizona’s 10 runs Sunday at Oregon State. He was the first UA player with three homers in a game since CJ Ziegler in 2008 and had the first 8-RBI game since Moises Duran in 2002.

“I was seeing the ball good,” said Corona, a junior who was 4 for 5 in that game. “Felt good at the plate, had good at-bats all day, just trying to put together team at-bats.”

For the season, Corona has six homers and 30 RBI, hitting .345 in 22 games with 20 starts, including a 14-game hit streak that ended Tuesday. He’s part of a platoon in right field with senior Tyler Casagrande and freshman Brendan Summerhill and has also started at DH. The plan during the fall was for him to be the everyday right fielder, but a hamstring injury and the preseason emergence of Casagrande and Summerhill changed those plans.

“He kind of got pushed back a little bit,” UA coach Chip Hale said. “And then getting the opportunities he got he ran with it.”

Corona’s first breakout game was against Grand Canyon on March 28, when he was 2 for 4 with a homer, three RBI and the walkoff hit in that 10-inning victory. Two weeks later, against the school that recruited him out of San Luis Obispo, Calif., Corona was 5 for 11 with seven RBI including five in a 13-1 win over Washington.

He said during that series his performance “definitely meant a little more to me” because it was against his former team, though he said he holds no ill will toward the program. In fact, it was teammates at Washington that turned him on to Pima after deciding to leave the Huskies.

As for winding up at Arizona? They’d been on his own radar for a long time.

“I think anybody who plays baseball growing up kind of looks up to the U of A and is kind of like, wow, this is kind of the pinnacle of college athletics,” he said.

Hale said the relationship with Pima’s coaching staff, led by Ken Jacome—a volunteer assistant with the Wildcats in 1997-98—makes it so they “tip us off on guys” on their roster. Once he looked at Corona, who had 13 homers, 60 RBI and 15 stolen bases in 55 games, it was a no-brainer.

“You don’t come around power like he has,” Hale said. “Next year, if he’s here, if he doesn’t get drafted, he really runs well. So I think there’s parts of his game that we can really improve.”

Pressing the reset button

Arizona is coming off an 0-4 road trip, which dropped its mark away from Hi Corbett to 5-13 including a 3-1 performance at the season-opening MLB Desert Invitational in Scottsdale and Mesa. The Wildcats are 18-6 at home, having won their last eight, and have outscored opponents 253-139.

This weekend is the UA’s “bye” from Pac-12 play, since there are 11 teams in the conference, and it is 14-4 against nonconference foes including 10-2 at home.

“We can sort of hit the reset button a little bit,” Hale said when asked about how the team will approach the Air Force series. “You still want to win. It’s very important to win games, just like it was on Tuesday. We went after that game the same way we would any other game.

“We’ll use our bullpen smartly, and make sure that everybody’s ready for the next weekend. And hopefully we’re in situations where we see some different people.”

Hale said it’s too late in the season to give a look to guys who have yet to play this season, or in the case of freshman pitchers Hayden Lewis and Luke Moeller—who each made one appearance in February—but he is hoping some of the freshmen who have intermittently played to get more opportunities. That includes right-handed relievers Casey Hintz (who threw two scoreless innings Tuesday at Grand Canyon and hasn’t allowed a run since March 28) and Tony Pluta and infielder Maddox Mihalakis.

Pitching update

With a 5.44 ERA, Arizona is third-worst in the Pac-12 and 109th nationally. Twenty-two other power-conference programs have a higher ERA, though, including the last two College World Series champions (and 2021 champ Mississippi State fired its pitching coach this week) as well as Texas A&M.

A&M’s pitching coach is Nate Yeskie, who was in that role in 2021 when Arizona made the CWS and finished with a 4.60 ERA. His staff’s ERA this season: 5.56.

Arizona’s pitching had been trending in the right direction before the bullpen imploded in two of three games at Oregon State, but in both those losses the starting effort was stellar. May went six solid innings on Sunday, while Cameron Walty extended his scoreless streak to 21.2 innings with seven clean frames Friday.

And Tuesday’s 12-inning loss at Grand Canyon saw 8.1 scoreless innings from five relievers before Trevor Long wore down in his third inning of work and started to get him.

Giving up hits isn’t the problem, though, Hale said.

“It’s just the walks, and we’ve been so good at that all year,” he said. “If you look at that statistic, the walk statistic, around the country, we’ve been really good. That’s one thing we haven’t done poorly as a pitching staff. We just got into some bad spots because of giving free passes.”

Arizona walked 11 batters in the 11-10 loss at Oregon State Sunday, most since March 2021. For the year, the UA ranks 24th nationally in walks per nine innings (3.52) and 38th in strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.43).