I exchanged questions with Arizona Desert Swarm SBNation blogger Brian J. Pedersen to learn more about the Wildcats team that just beat the Piss out of Ole, and will subsequently be our first opponent in Omaha. Here goes nothing:
1. Did you see this tourney run coming prior to the start of the season? I mean, you had a 10-5 truncated season in 2020 and began 2021 with a 4 game split with Ball State. Follow up question: when during this season did you know this team could make a run to Omaha?
Arizona coach Jay Johnson feels like his 2020 team was good enough to go to Omaha, and that one would have included a pair of high draft picks in catcher Austin Wells (1st round, Yankees) and 1B/DH Matthew Dyer (4th round, Mets). Instead, the 2021 squad features a core of freshmen that are only here because COVID shortened the 2020 draft to five rounds. Once those guys were locked into coming to college, all the pieces were there.
There were some bumps early in the season, for sure, but after Arizona lost 21-2 at Washington State in mid-April, but then ran off 10 straight wins (and suddenly had some relievers, who had hardly thrown all season, turn into studs) it looked very possible.
2. You guys are very tall. Thoughts?
It’s all the sunlight they’re exposed to year-round out West. Vitamin D is great for bones!
3. So. RHP Chase Silseth has been your Game One starter in both the Regional and Supers, but he has been less than cromulent, going 3IP 9H 4R against interwebs college Grand Canyon and 4 & 2/3IP 6H 3R against Ole Piss. That’s a suboptimal 8.22 ERA in the NCAA Tourney. Is he your guy for Game One against us? If so, are those two performances outliers, or indicative of a trend? You feel good about throwing him opposite Kumar Rocker?
*Googles cromluent* *Adds to party conversation dictionary*
Silseth’s recent numbers can’t be ignored, but it’s very unlikely Jay Johnson won’t still go with him for Game 1. He’s a creature of habit and doesn’t give up on his ‘guys,’ but he’s also not afraid to pull the plug. He has that luxury because of the depth of the bullpen, particularly with the number of starter-like relievers who can go long.
4. Corollary to the last question: How about the rest of your pitching staff? You’ve got a pretty high 4.43 team ERA. Of course, your offense has bludgeoned opponents to the tune of about double that. Still, do you have any pitchers you have extreme confidence in? Or is this purely a run and shoot “good luck outscoring us” attack?
The 2019 team, and probably the 2020 squad had it been able to keep going, were ones that Jay Johnson referred to as “Oklahoma offense, Texas Tech defense” kinds of teams. This one has much better pitching, particularly the relievers, because there are just so many and they all bring a different element. Arizona’s ability to mix and match has made it so that, once it has a lead, it can strategize the pitching the rest of the way.
5. You guys beat Ole Piss into submission in Games One (9-3) and Three (16-3), but couldn’t do much against that Ostrich with arms, Doug Nikhazy, in Game Two. Are you nervous that your potent offense might get brought down to earth by a true Ace like Kumar Rocker?
Arizona is going to take the same approach against Rocker as it did against Nikhazy: make him throw a lot of pitches. Nikhazy’s pitch count was at 54 after 2 innings, and had UA starter Garrett Irvin not had his worst outing of the season and been pulled after 1.1, the Wildcats would have had Nikhazy out much earlier than his 5.1 IP in which he threw 121 pitches. Arizona’s goal is to get the starter out by the end of the sixth, if not sooner, and its lineup is crafted to make those starters work their butts off just to get that far.
6. Let’s talk about that offense. You have perhaps the tallest lineup 1-9 I’ve ever seen. Did Lute Olson recruit them? Beyond their tallness, you guys have an otherworldly team .329 batting average, with 5 of your regulars over .350. Did Head Coach Jay Johnson wish on some sort of cursed monkey’s paw, and, if so, what will be his ironic comeuppance?
Okay, it’s evident you’ve got a height fetish, so that’s cool. As for the team batting average, Johnson and his offensive coaches have a tremendous ability to develop hitters. For example: No. 9 hitter Nik McClaughry, who is at .317 but was over .350 for a while, is a 5-foot-8 middle infielder who hit .260 in junior college. And 3B Tony Bullard, who didn’t become a regular starter until the beginning of May, is 18 for 37 with 6 HR and 15 RBI the past nine games; before that he was hitting .242 with 1 HR and 15 RBI in 38 games.
7. More serious questions about the offense: A good number of your top hitters are underclassmen (So. 1B Brandon Boissiere, So. OF Ryan Holgate, So. 2B Kobe Kato, So. 3B Tony Bullard, So. SS Nik McClaughry, So. OF Tyler “Big House” Casagrande, Fr. DH Jacob Berry, and Fr. C Daniel Susac). How do you think such a relatively inexperienced lineup will fare against the top tier pitching Vanderbilt will counter with?
Boissiere, Holgate and Kato are all 3rd-year sophomores, and at least the first two are likely to get drafted. But yes, the CWS experience isn’t there other than OF Tanner O’Tremba, who was on Texas Tech’s CWS team in 2019. However, I don’t see this team fearing anyone. It’s Rocker that should be worried that Arizona is going to make that Arkansas outing look like a quality start.
8. Who is your best overall athlete (and why is it leadoff hitter Jr. CF Donta Williams—the only starter who’s not an underclassman)?
Donta’ is a flat out stud. He’s reached base in 47 consecutive games, has an OPS over 1.000—that’s good for a leadoff hitter, right?—and turns 40 percent out any outfield into a no-fly zone. But Jay Johnson might say it’s OF Mac Bingham, a former HS running back who is playing through a broken hamate bone in his left hand that’s limited him to just being a defensive replacement so far in the postseason but might be healed up enough for him to return to the plate where, at .305, he is Arizona’s “worst” offensive regular.
9. The Wildcats have hit 69 HR on the season. First of all, nice. Second, TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha is notoriously tough to hit it out of, as it’s a bigger park, and the wind tends to blow in from the outfield. How will the Wildcat offensive attack be able to adapt? Are you suited to play a get ‘em on, get ‘em over, get ‘em in brand of small ball, or would a weakened power game severely limit what you can do offensively?
In 2016, when Arizona played in the CWS championship series, it used small ball to get there. The offense has been too good the past season to do that too much since, but it’s still an option. More likely, though, is that Arizona will try to spray the ball around and do a lot of 1st-to-3rd or 2nd-to-home baserunning on hits into the outfield. After all, this team doesn’t just lead the country in hits (721) and runs (526) but also doubles (138) and triples (29). The home runs are just a bonus, and most of those came in the biggest park in college baseball. TD Ameritrade is 30 feet shorter to left and to the power alleys than Hi Corbett, where the Wildcats launched 7 homers against Ole Miss.
10. Your second baseman is named Kato. Did Head Coach Jay Johnson bring him in so as to attack him at random times, Inspector Clouseau style?
Kato’s excess eyeblack does provide him with a layer of camouflage, but he’ll be hard to miss otherwise. Not bad for a kid that, as a true freshman, wasn’t an official member of the team, but was still allowed to work out and practice with them. Now he’s got the second-best OBP on the team.
11. What are you most confident in with respect to matching up against Vanderbilt? Similarly, what’s your biggest fear?
Vandy hasn’t faced an offense like this—it’s not even close. Arkansas and Ole Miss are the most similar, and each beat Rocker. On the flip side, if Arizona finds itself behind early and it can’t figure out a certain pitch, it’s at risk of scrapping its plan at the plate like it did in Game 2 of the Super Regional.