FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.—Baseball, maybe more than any other sport, is a game of rituals and traditions. For Arizona’s position players, they always huddle together after the coaches give their pregame pep talk, ending with their version of the Chicago Bulls’ “game time” chant.
The Wildcats’ pitchers?
“They’re always doing stuff out here, like playing catch,” shortstop Nik McClaughry said, pointing to the outfield.
But that all changed prior to the final regular-season road game, May 14 at conference champ Stanford. Coming off a lackluster 9-2 loss the day before—“we just sort of laid an egg,” coach Chip Hale would say—McClaughry and his fellow hitters decided to include their pitching teammates in the huddle.
Coincidentally, or maybe not, Arizona would win that game 21-20 in 10 innings, beginning a late-season surge that would get it into the NCAA Tournament despite a bad conference record.
That team huddle has been the norm ever since, and will continue during this weekend’s play at the Fayetteville Regional.
“It just kind of brought our team together to another level,” said right-hander Cam Walty, who is set to start Friday’s opener against TCU. “I just think it’s a camaraderie thing, kind of just like a bond. I think it was a big deal just to kind of bring us together and kind of find that meaning for what we all want again.”
McClaughry said the players share funny stories to loosen the mood, then focus on what needs to happen for them to win that game.
“And then we’ll be locked into that game,” he said. “It’s a cool way to just, like, not think about anything that’s going on. I mean, I can be 0 for 10 in my last 10 at-bats, but for those four or five minutes, we’re in that huddle. We’re not thinking about that at all.”
Trevor Long began the season as Arizona’s closer, earning four of his five saves in the first four weekends of the season. But as conference play came around, Hale and pitching coach Dave Lawn tried to “mix and match” relievers based on the opposing hitters coming up late in the game.
The results were not particularly good.
Between late March and into May, Arizona lost numerous leads in the seventh inning or later, and it seemed like everyone in the bullpen was at least partly responsible. At some point, a decision had to be made to identify a closer, and Chris Barraza ended up being that guy.
The fifth-year senior from Sahuarita has been the final arm used in 12 of his last 14 appearances, earning his first career save on April 25 against New Mexico and picking up four victories. He also picked up back-to-back losses in a series at Oregon State, being on the mound right before or during both walkoffs.
“He was beat up,” Hale said. “We came back from Oregon State and I can remember vividly just telling him, just stay with it. He was just so frustrated. I think especially the older players and pitchers, when they struggle a little bit, they see the end coming, so I think there is a little bit of maybe some more mental anguish than a freshman who knows he’s got two or three more years to get this thing right. They want to win so badly, sometimes it can be counterproductive.”
Barraza said it’s hard to “forgive and forget” when having a bad outing, especially at the end of a game. Moving forward was what was needed.
“I’m going to get another chance, so I can’t really dwell on the past and my last outings, just fix the small things,” he said.
Sometimes that second chance comes in the same game.
In that 21-20 win over Stanford, Barraza allowed the 3-run home run to Alberto Rios that tied the game at 18 in the ninth. But after the Wildcats retook the lead in the top of the 10th, he was back out there to finish what he started, and though he allowed two more runs he struck out Carter Graham with a slider to end it.
“I knew they still trusted me, and I knew I had a second chance to bounce back,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking in my head ‘don’t make the same mistake.’ I believe I got good stuff and sometimes I kind of let that get away from me.”
Barraza’s last two outings, in the Pac-12 Tournament, may have been his best yet. Against Oregon State he came on with two on and one out in a tie game in the eighth and didn’t allow a run to score, then in the ninth was faced with a runner on third and no out and managed to escape the jam.
He then threw 1.2 scoreless innings in the final, getting a double play on one pitch in the seventh and then striking out two of three in the eighth.
Small stadium, big crowds
Arkansas’ Baum-Walker Stadium has a capacity of 11,531, making it one of the largest stadiums in college baseball. And the Razorbacks pack it, averaging more than 9,600 fans in 34 home games in 2023.
How much do they love their baseball in Fayetteville? There are fans camped out along Razorback Way to get stops in the “Hog Pen,” a grassy area beyond left-center that’s general admission.
“They’ve been here since Wednesday,” Arkansas assistant athletic director Kyle Parkinson said.
While the crowds will be big, the field itself will seem small for the Wildcats. Then again, most do compared to spacious Hi Corbett Field.
It’s 325 feet down the line, with the power alleys at 375 and straightaway center at 400 feet. Those distances could have contributed to Arkansas hitting 49 of its 82 homers at home.
Hale said recruiting coordinator Trip Couch, who came from South Carolina and played there every other year in SEC play, warned him not to overthink the dimensions.
“He said for that conference it’s a very fair stadium,” Hale said.
Transfer portal opens
The NCAA transfer portal officially opened for college baseball on Tuesday, the start of a 45-day window for players to put their name in and be eligible for the 2024 season. And while Arizona’s 2023 season isn’t over, it has already seen some members of the current squad enter the portal.
Freshmen Hayden Lewis, Luke Moeller and Trevor Schmidt are all in the portal, per D1Baseball.com’s Transfer Tracker. They join a pair of Wildcats, sophomore Reed Schaefer and freshmen Mason Kelley and Tyler Lejeune, who entered after fall ball.
Lewis and Moeller each saw action in one game this season, each throwing one inning of relief in a nonconference game in February. Schmidt, a first baseman/outfielder, redshirted in 2023.
The vast majority of the 1,500-plus players already in the portal are from teams that didn’t make the NCAA tourney, many clubs have seen guys who were not part of their postseason plans get a jump start on finding a new school.
Arkansas has four players in the portal, while TCU has three.