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NCAA Baseball: Arizona not trying to prove it belongs after landing one of last at-large bids

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.—The postseason officially begins Friday when the NCAA Tournament kicks off at 16 regional sites across the country (but mostly in the southeast). For Arizona, though, it really began a few weeks ago.

The Wildcats (33-24) head into their tourney opener against TCU (37-22) having won seven of their last nine games, with every matchup coming against a team that either made the NCAA field or was on the bubble. That includes ASU, USC and UC-Irvine, all teams that national college baseball experts have said were more deserving of that spot than the UA, which at 12-18 in the Pac-12 had the worst conference record of an at-large choice since 2009.

Does that mean Arizona has something to prove? It already has, coach Chip Hale says.

“I think when you start trying to prove you need to be in there, it just makes us guys too tight,” he said. “We have a veteran group. I just really wanted them to get one more shot. They played so hard and made up so much ground late in the year, and showed everybody that they were a tournament-worthy team. We’re confident we’re gonna play hard.”

This is the third consecutive NCAA trip for Arizona, which last happened from 2010-12, and there are a few holdovers from both previous runs including the 2021 College World Series. Compare that to TCU, which is starting a freshman on the mound and also has freshmen starting at shortstop and catcher, and the Wildcats’ postseason experience could be to their advantage.

Both from 2021-22 and unofficially these past two weeks.

“This last week, just playing in that championship gave against Oregon, it was (like) a regional,” shortstop Nik McClaughry said. “I played in a regional final, Super Regional, in Omaha, and I feel like that was the exact same feeling. And I think that’s huge for all the guys to experience that, and now going into Fayetteville, Arkansas, where it’s a big, big environment. I think that was a huge step for us to be prepared for that.”

Both teams come in playing their best baseball of the season, with TCU rolling through the Big 12 tourney without a loss. The Horned Frogs were the preseason pick to win the league but finished fourth, going through a midseason lull that was akin to but not nearly as pronounced as the one that saw Arizona drop 10 straight conference games.

The reason for that dip, though, was similar.

“We weren’t pitching well,” said TCU coach Kirk Saarloos, a former Major League pitcher. “And it starts with starting pitching. If you don’t pitch well and get good started pitching, your offense doesn’t have a chance to breathe.”

TCU has stolen 129 bases, tied for eighth-most in the country, but during a stretch in mid- to late-April it only had four steals in a 1-7 stretch.

“We like to run the bases, and when you’re down three or four or five runs early in games, you’re probably not going to be stealing as many bases or (be) as aggressive, and that takes a little bit of what we do away,” he said.

Pitching issues are not foreign to Arizona, which began the year with junior TJ Nichols as the Friday night starter and now he’s being used in a mop-up relief role. The Wildcats eventually settled on junior Cam Walty for that spot, and he’ll start against TCU coming off a 3-inning, 6-run performance against Oregon State in the Pac-12 tourney that came on four days’ rest.

He’s been off for eight days now, and Hale feels the Nevada transfer’s demeanor makes him perfect for this spot.

“There’s a calmness to him,” Hale said of Walty, who is 5-0 with a 5.33 ERA. “There’s some illusion to his pitches. He has the fastball with the ability to go down and up, gets swings and misses. Can throw all three pitches for strikes and allows our defense to play. We really trust our defense.”

Pima transfers Bradon Zastrow and Aiden May, both of whom were stellar in the Pac-12 tourney, are likely to start the second and third games of regionals. But as Hale learned last year in Coral Gables, pitching plans are meant to get ruined.

“There’s a situation where you might end up having to use a ton of guys,” he said. “We threw a bunch of people (Monday) against hitters to try to get them some more live at-bats. And everybody will be available. We’re going to have to get some really quality innings out of guys that haven’t pitched a whole lot lately. We’re probably a little deeper than last year. We’d like to be deeper but that’s something we got to work on.”

No one is picking Arizona to get out of the Fayetteville Regional, as most projections have host Arkansas not only advancing but reaching the College World Series. But then again, no one expected Ole Miss to go from last team in to national champion a year ago, something Hale and several players had a front row seat to witness.

“Ole Miss was hot, and they got to going and took it all the way,” said Hale, who believes his team shares some qualities with that Rebels squad. “It’s an older group who’s been through this and so hopefully we’ll use that experience to their benefit.”