UA BASEBALL

Arizona baseball: Willeford ripening despite slow start

2013-04-05T00:00:00Z Arizona baseball: Willeford ripening despite slow startDaniel Berk Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 05, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Andy Lopez gave a five-minute spiel on bananas this week at Hi Corbett Field.

He talked about yellow bananas, green bananas and rotten bananas.

But it all related to baseball.

The way the Arizona Wildcats coach views things, his veterans, the Johnny Fields and Brandon Dixons of the world, are yellow, ripe bananas.

A freshman, like designated hitter Jackson Willeford is still green.

"You can eat that banana green, but it's not going to taste very good," Lopez said. "How do they become yellow? They have to play."

That's why Willeford started all three games at DH last weekend against Utah and will likely be in the lineup tonight when the Wildcats open a three-game home series against Cal.

Willeford has a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament (the injury that forces Tommy John surgery for pitchers) and is limited to hitting only. The freshman likely won't play in the field this season.

Willeford also battled mononucleosis before the season and missed an extended period of time.

"It's been a very eye-opening experience," Willeford said. "This obviously isn't the way I wanted to come in."

Here's a closer look at Willeford's season to date:

• The decision. Willeford was the only member of Lopez's recruiting class to be selected in the MLB draft. He was picked in the 12th round (373rd overall) by the Kansas City Royals and seriously considered signing and beginning his professional baseball career.

"It was a tough decision, but in the end, I thought coming here was the best thing for my career," Willeford said. "I talked to Coach Lopez a lot throughout the process and he just kept telling me to think logically about things."

Even though Willeford's freshman season has gotten off to a statistically slow start (he's 1 for 18 this year with three RBIs), he has all the tools to be successful at this level.

"He has the makeup we want," Lopez said. "He has the bat speed we want. He has the ability we want."

And then the coach went back to bananas.

"He just wants to be a yellow banana when he's a green banana," he said.

• The setbacks. Willeford, a Ramona, Calif., product, hoped he could be an impact player right away.

The elbow injury and the bout with mono have slowed him down. Willeford came to campus with a banged-up shoulder and said he hurt his elbow by dropping his arm slot when he threw the ball to protect his shoulder.

"When we came back from Christmas break, I felt it get tight in my elbow and then one day I heard a pop in practice," Willeford said. "We got it taken care of and luckily I didn't make it worse than it could have been."

The setbacks kept Willeford out of the lineup early in the season. He has played in six games this year, starting the last three.

• Slowing the game down. In Saturday's 2-1 win over Utah, Willeford came up late in the game with the bases loaded.

Lopez stepped out of the home dugout, yelled Willeford's name and asked for his attention.

He then motioned for his freshman to take a deep breath.

"He's trying to hit a nine-run home run and he's trying to knock the wall completely down and hit a plane on its landing pattern," Lopez said. "That's his goal right now. But, if he gets a hit, Coach Lopez is going to be a really happy guy."

The coach had Willeford hitting ground balls this week in practice and told him to worry more about finding the holes than trying to power up.

"The game here is a lot tougher than what I'm used to in high school," Willeford said. "I feel like every day I come out here, it gets slower and slower."

Today

• What: California at Arizona

• When: 6 p.m.

• Where: Hi Corbett Field

• Radio: 1290-AM

Contact reporter Daniel Berk at dberk@azstarnet.com or 573-4330. On Twitter @DSBerk.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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