Jay Johnson unabashedly rooted for the Cleveland Indians in Game 5 of the ALDS on Wednesday night. It was the least he could do for Terry Francona, whose $1 million donation helped build the hitting facility that bears his name and should lift the Arizona Wildcats to even greater heights.
Although the new building beyond the right-field wall at Hi Corbett Field isn’t ready for its official unveiling, the Cats have started using it as fall practice gets underway. Johnson, entering his third season as UA coach, believes the hitting facility will aid Arizona’s current players and help lure new ones.
“Offensive player development is a priority to me and to our program,” Johnson said Wednesday. “Now, to have that facility as a place to enhance that, as a place where our players are going to want to show up and spend time in, it meshes well with what we believe in. I can’t thank Terry enough.”
Johnson said the building, which features multiple batting cages among other amenities, looks “special” when you enter it. Johnson is battling with other top programs for the best players in the West and elsewhere, and he’ll take whatever help he can get.
“If those are the caliber of players we’re going to pursue, and are going to be attracted to us, you have to build a strategy,” Johnson said. “Every advantage you can have is really important.”
Johnson, who in August signed a five-year contract extension through 2022, talked about his new deal and other topics in a 15-minute fall-ball briefing with reporters:
On the contract’s significance for him and the program: “I think it’s one in the same. All of my thoughts are geared toward what’s best for Arizona baseball. From a program standpoint, for two years you’re listening to a lot of things that are essentially rumors of your leaving — that’s off the table. I’m an Arizona Wildcat. This is where I want to be. … It allows you to think about the program in a long-term way as well as a short-term way. To be able to do that, be able to express that vision very confidently to our current players, our recruits and their families, I think it’s going to do a lot for us.”
On the differences between former UA athletic director Greg Byrne and current AD Dave Heeke: “They are both wonderful athletic directors. I’m obviously grateful for Greg for bringing me here and what I would call my dream job. And then for Dave, in a short period of time, to come in and do the things he’s done for our program and for me personally is something I’m very grateful for. He’s a guy you want to work hard for.”
On improving the pitching staff: “We’re essentially on a three-year or four-year plan to infiltrate the program with as much pitching talent as we possibly can. When you look at the top five programs in the country, just from an appearance standpoint, their arms are different than everybody else. A big key to our success in 2016 was the evolution of that pitching staff. I think this year is the first year of that, with a couple other recruiting classes right behind it that have a chance to build our talent level.”
- Junior Alfonso Rivas, who played primarily left field and DH last season, is working at first base.
- Cal Stevenson, Matt Fraizer and Mitchell Morimoto are vying to succeed Jared Oliva in center field. Stevenson is considered the favorite.
- Freshman right-hander Quinn Flanagan, who had Tommy John surgery in March 2016, pitched two innings in an intra-squad scrimmage Sunday.