Editor’s note: The Star’s Zack Rosenblatt is counting down the 50 best athletes on the University of Arizona campus right now, with help from athletes, coaches and those close to the program.
No. 12: Cal Stevenson
The details: Stevenson is a 5-foot-9-inch, 170-pound outfielder from Fremont, California, entering his senior season. Stevenson was initially one of UA coach Jay Johnson’s first recruits to Nevada , and the two eventually joined in Arizona, too, when Stevenson transferred to the Wildcats from Chabot College in California before last season. He hit .359 in his lone season at Nevada and was named the Mountain West’s co-freshman of the year. Johnson technically recruited Stevenson twice.
“The second time was more, ‘You want to come here?’ and, ‘Yeah, I want to come here,’” Stevenson said. “It’s hard to say no to Arizona. Arizona is a great school. When I was in (high school) in 2012, they won the national championship. That’s a place where I wanted to go out of high school. I knew they always had great players and I wanted to be surrounded by great players to improve myself and see where I was at.”
The numbers: Spending most of the season batting either first or last in the order, Stevenson became one of Arizona’s most clutch hitters in his first year in Tucson. He hit .311 on the year with four home runs, 30 RBIs, five stolen bases, 11 doubles and a team-best 61 runs scored. Before Arizona, he hit .287 with 57 runs scored and 21 steals at Chabot. He also scored 55 runs and stole 10 bases at Nevada in 2015.
The value: Johnson has described Stevenson as a “table setter,” and it’s an apt description. He’s one of Arizona’s best when it comes to getting on base, and with Jared Oliva gone after being selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the MLB draft, Stevenson will likely emerge as the everyday leadoff hitter. His role will be particularly important — getting on base and scoring runs — with two of Arizona’s three best run producers (Oliva and J.J. Matijevic) off to play in the pros.
Why Stevenson? He admits that it was an adjustment going from the Mountain West to playing in the Pac-12, and Stevenson certainly slumped at points in his first season at Arizona. But his position as table setter proved especially true late in the season when he hit a walk-off homer against Washington, and the Wildcats went on to win six of their next eight games. It was Stevenson’s second walk-off hit of the season, the first coming against Oklahoma State.
“It’s funny because I was thinking about this the other day,” Stevenson said last week. “Those are the first two walk-off hits I’ve ever had. I’ve had opportunities where I could’ve ended the game and it just didn’t happen. I think this past year, it’s just slowing yourself down and really embracing the moment. … When you get those hits, it’s a great feeling.”
Proof he’s good: In Stevenson’s first 15 games, he hit .358 and scored 25 runs, and had a similarly impressive streak in a five-game stretch later in the season with matchups against Santa Clara, Washington and Arizona State. In those five games, he hit 10 for 18 (.556) with eight runs scored. Stevenson won Pac-12 player of the week in May, and wound up leading the conference in runs scored (61) and walks (48) while finishing fourth in on-base percentage (.448).
“It was a grind. There was definitely some parts of the season where I had to really get through it because it was tough. It’s a higher level competition,” Stevenson said. “It was about making adjustments from throughout the season that you’re not used to making and really sticking to it without getting way from it. That’s what helped me toward the end of the year — I had a plan and I stuck with it.”
What Stevenson can accomplish: Arizona’s lineup might not be as potent in 2018 as it was in 2017. But as the primary leadoff hitter, Stevenson should still finish among the league leaders in runs scored and on-base percentage while pushing for a spot on the 32-person All-Pac-12 team. He was an honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection last season.
Coachspeak: “I knew he was a good player. We brought him in (anticipating) he would be a key part of our team, and he’s absolutely done that. It’s more than just the production. His style of play, the way he plays, has elicited a lot of respect from his teammates.” — Johnson
He said it: “It was tough for me last year. Especially for me watching the seniors leave, especially watching what they had to go through the year before, losing the national championship game. So for me, it’s motivated me to do better and get through this offseason, get to the fall and really grind and get after it. I know what it’s like to be in a regional and I just want to go further.” — Stevenson, on his motivation after being eliminated in the Lubbock Regional.