Ryan Haug, a catcher by trade, recently recalled the first time Jay Johnson asked him to play left field.
Haug started at catcher for the Arizona Wildcats that May 2017 night at College of Charleston. When Johnson decided to use regular catcher Cesar Salazar as a pinch hitter for Mitchell Morimoto in the eighth inning, the coach said to Haug: “Hey, you can play left field, right?”
Haug, of course, said yes — even though he hadn’t played outfield in a game as a Wildcat.
Sure enough, in the bottom of the eighth, Charleston’s Joey Mundy hit a line drive down the left field line. Haug ran it down.
“The whole time I was running I was thinking to myself, ‘If you drop this ball, you’re never playing out here again,’ ” Haug said this week.
It wasn’t a one-off. Haug has become Arizona’s left fielder of choice lately, in large part because of his defense, which has been spectacular at times this season.
Haug, who has one of the strongest arms on the team, has thrown out two runners at the plate. He also has made multiple diving catches.
“The arm strength is certainly impressive,” said Johnson, whose team faces North Dakota State in a three-game series at Hi Corbett Field starting Friday.
“In this park, you have to have outfielders that can really go get the ball, with all the space. He’s done a good job of that, really lifted our team.
“Last weekend, he was probably the only guy who played real well. His versatility, along with his experience, is something that we need right now.”
Arizona went 0-3 at the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge in Minneapolis last weekend. Haug did his best to keep that from happening.
In the second inning against Minnesota last Friday, Haug dived into the stands to catch a foul pop. In the bottom of the ninth, he threw out the would-be winning run at the plate.
The next day, against Illinois, Haug made a diving catch with two outs and a runner on second in the top of the ninth to keep Arizona within a run.
“Everyone knows Haug has a good arm,” teammate Alfonso Rivas III said. “But the leaping grab over the fence was just unreal. No one was expecting it. I don’t think he was expecting it. It just kind of happened. It defines the type of athlete that he is.”
At one point last season, Johnson referred to Haug as “our best defensive outfielder.” That team featured MLB seventh-round draft pick Jared Oliva in center and current center fielder Cal Stevenson in right.
While Haug’s primary present position is left field, his future lies at catcher. Blessed with a rocket arm and excellent quickness, the 6-1, 176-pound senior describes catcher as his “passion.” Johnson believes Haug is one of the best defensive catchers in the country. (Arizona happens to have two of them, Salazar being the other.)
“If you put him in a major-league game right now behind the plate,” Johnson said of Haug, “you wouldn’t know it was a college player back there.”
Haug considers himself a “utility guy.” Regardless of where he plays, he embraces the importance of defense.
“I love catching,” Haug said. “But it’s a lot of fun out there. I don’t get dinged up as much. I still get opportunities to throw guys out, make sweet plays.”
Given how well Haug has played defensively — his highlight reel also includes a one-hop strike from left to home against New Mexico State last Tuesday — it was shocking to see him misplay a ball against San Diego State this week.
With runners on second and third and two outs in the bottom of the first, the Aztecs’ Jason Verdon, a left-handed batter, hit a towering fly to left. Haug took a false step on the tailing drive and couldn’t recover. The ball landed for a two-RBI double.
“Definitely a ball I should’ve caught,” Haug said. “I come up with that play, and he (starter Avery Weems) throws up a zero. Tough one to swallow, but it’s one of those things.”
Johnson thought the misplay affected Haug in his first at-bat in the bottom half of the inning. He struck out swinging.
Haug later got back to what he does best at the plate. He walked twice and scored a run. He’s hitting .259 with one RBI in 27 at-bats but has a .444 on-base percentage, second-best among UA regulars.
He bounced back on defense, too. With one out and a runner on first in the top of the eighth, Haug made a diving catch near the line to rob Verdon of another extra-base hit.
“He goes all out,” Rivas said. “Kind of pours his heart out. It’s great to see as a teammate.”
- North Dakota State coach Tod Brown played for Arizona from 1990-94 under Jerry Kindall. Brown, a left-handed pitcher, led the ’93 Wildcats with a 3.90 ERA and eight saves. He attended Sabino High School.
- Salazar, who leads the team with a .333 batting average, was named to the Johnny Bench Award watch list earlier this week.
- Arizona’s probable starters for the NDSU series are right-hander Cody Deason (1-0, 1.93), righty Michael Flynn (1-0, 3.75) and lefty Randy Labaut (0-1, 2.18).
- The Bison’s Friday starter, righty Riley Johnson, threw a no-hitter against Central Connecticut State on Feb. 23.