JJ Matijevic’s bat speed is preposterous. Opposite-field home runs at cavernous Hi Corbett Field are as rare as cool summer days in Tucson. Matijevic’s team-leading 10 homers for the Arizona Wildcats included an opposite-field shot.
Jared Oliva’s athleticism is freakish. He has run the 60-yard dash in less than 6.4 seconds; the average for a major-leaguer is about 6.9. He led the 2017 Wildcats with 10 stolen bases. He’s also built like a strong safety.
The physical gifts that Matijevic and Oliva possess are obvious. They’re the principal reason the All-Pac-12 selections will be picked in the early rounds of the 2017 MLB draft, which takes place Monday-Wednesday.
They aren’t the only reason. Matijevic and Oliva also rank high on the character scale. Both matured as players and people during their time at Arizona, developing into the sort of stand-up teammates any pro club would want to have.
“You build great organizations in any walk of life with great people,” UA coach Jay Johnson said.
“Building a winning college baseball team is no different. They have to have talent and ability, but you have to know what you’re getting with the person every time they walk into the facility. We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of good guys.”
Matijevic and Oliva — who are expected to be long gone by the end of Day 2, which concludes with the 10th round — were core members of back-to-back NCAA Tournament teams. Despite having many future pros on the roster, Arizona didn’t make the postseason from 2013-15.
“It definitely shows that it takes more than talent to get there,” Oliva said.
That statement applies to playing professional baseball as well.
Oliva always had talent. He didn’t necessarily have good fortune or the ideal mental approach to realize it.
Oliva suffered a broken wrist as a freshman at Valencia (Calif.) High School. He didn’t play much as a sophomore or junior. He came to Arizona as a preferred walk-on, redshirted in 2014, played part time in ’15 and struggled at the plate for a good portion of ’16.
Oliva believes those experiences will help him cope with the hardships inherent in pro ball.
“I really learned how to carry myself on and off the field,” Oliva said. “I’ve been through that adversity. Most don’t hit it until they get to pro ball. I faced mine in high school and college.”
Known for his extreme intensity — which can be a detriment at times in baseball — Oliva continues to work on his mindset. He saw a hypnotherapist in the fall and listened to audio tapes at night to help him relax.
At the behest of the UA coaching staff, Oliva also made a slight alteration to his batting stance. Like Matijevic, Oliva enjoyed his best season in 2017. He posted career highs in multiple offensive categories, including batting average (.321), runs (56), doubles (25), RBIs (54), slugging percentage (.498) and on-base percentage (.385). He and Matijevic were the only Wildcats to start every game.
“You know what you’re getting with Jared,” Johnson said. “He has an extremely high work ethic and is a guy that plays every day like he’s trying to prove something.
“In the industry of professional baseball, you’ve got to do something to separate yourself because a lot of guys are the same. He has all the athletic tools, but how motivated he is will stand out.”
Like so many Little Leaguers, Oliva dreamt of playing professional baseball one day and finds the impending prospect of it “surreal.” After going back home last week, he planned to return to Tucson to watch the draft with his roommates — UA teammates Michael Hoard, Cameron Ming and Luke Soroko — and other friends and family members. It just felt right to be here, Oliva said.
Matijevic will spend the draft with loved ones in his hometown of North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, not far from where he first started attending baseball games at the old Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. That decision is no way reflective of Matijevic’s feelings toward Arizona. They couldn’t be stronger.
“These have been the best three years of my life so far,” Matijevic said.
Matijevic had the opportunity to go pro out of high school. He knew he wasn’t ready, though, and his UA experience helped transform him on and off the field. He credited former Wildcats coach Andy Lopez for teaching him “about being a man, about life.” Johnson and his staff helped Matijevic take the next step as a player, converting that bad speed into productivity and power.
Matijevic ended his junior season atop the Pac-12 in batting average (.383), hits (92), total bases (152), doubles (30), RBIs (65) and slugging percentage (.633). The doubles tied the UA single-season record. Baseball America named Matijevic a second-team All-American.
He made just as much progress as a teammate and leader.
“Coming in his freshman year he had a bit of an ego,” Oliva said. Matijevic would be the first to admit as much.
“I respect the way he’s gone about his business,” Oliva continued. “The biggest thing I tell people is: We all knew he was a good player, a good hitter. But the stuff in the dugout, the stuff we did as a team, I’m more impressed with.”
Matijevic made a conscious effort, Johnson said, to “put the needs of the team ahead of his own.” It was Matijevic’s way of dealing with the pressure potential high draft picks face in their junior seasons.
He became a constant presence not only near the top of Arizona’s lineup but on the top step of its dugout, supporting and cheering his fellow Wildcats.
Matijevic’s buddy and former teammate, Bobby Dalbec, began his pro career last year. They communicate regularly. Dalbec’s biggest piece of advice: “Be where your feet are.”
Matijevic’s ultimate destination remains a mystery, in more ways than one. He primarily played first base this year but also has played second and could be an incredibly valuable commodity there if he can master that spot.
He also could end up as a corner outfielder.
Matijevic doesn’t care where his next team puts him. He just wants the reps.
“I’ve worked for everything I’ve accomplished in my life, and I will continue to work as hard as I can,” Matijevic said. “I know I still have a long way to go. But I’ll always be that good teammate.”