Dave Lawn arrived at Hi Corbett Field at 5:49 a.m. Thursday. That isn’t an uncommon occurrence for the Arizona Wildcats’ pitching coach. He did the same the day before — when practice didn’t begin until 6 p.m.
Like the rest of the UA staff, Lawn continues to seek answers to a vexing, lingering problem. Arizona pitchers have struggled to throw strikes all season long. As a result, they’ve been hit harder than any Wildcats pitching staff in recent times.
Arizona enters its final home series, a three-game set against USC starting Friday, with a 6.74 ERA. That figure ranks last in the Pac-12 and would be the Wildcats’ fourth-worst mark over the past 60 years.
Arizona’s struggles on the mound — which include a league-worst 5.56 walks allowed per nine innings — are the biggest reason the Wildcats are under .500 (22-24, 10-14 Pac-12) entering the final three weekends of the season.
UA coach Jay Johnson, who has had Lawn as his right-hand man since their Nevada days, was quick to fall on the sword when asked about Arizona’s pitching woes Thursday.
“I hold myself accountable for every area of the program,” Johnson said. “I decide who pitches. I decide who we put in when. Ultimately, I’m responsible for the development of the whole organization.”
Asked specifically about Lawn’s role, Johnson said: “Nobody outside of myself is wearing that struggle harder than him. He’s the first one in here every day. The plan is always really detailed. Adjustments are attempted (and) being made with guys.
“We’re sticking together. We’re trying to find solutions … and we’re going to keep going until we figure out what we need to do to get it better.”
Lawn has been coaching for more than 30 years, including lengthy stints at Cal and USC. In 2016, his first year at Arizona, the Wildcats posted their best ERA — 3.18 — since 1976.
Lawn sat down with the Star on Thursday afternoon to discuss what’s gone wrong this year, how he’s trying to fix it and what the future might hold. The conversation has been lightly edited for context and clarity.
You’ve been around college baseball for a long time. Have you ever experienced a season quite like this one?
A: “Thirty-three seasons, I’m sure somewhere in there we’ve had some years where the pitching wasn’t as good as we’d hoped. But as is always the case when you’re with them every day, you see these little wins that keep you going and keep them going. If you had seen our practice last night, you’d have thought we were 46-0.
“They don’t have to be reminded of the impact they’ve had on this season. Ever since we’ve been here, we’ve talked about winning the freebie war (walks, hit batsmen, wild pitches, errors). If you take, for example, the first ASU series, we gave up (29) hits to a juggernaut offense in a three-game series. If all we did was cut the walks (also 29) in half — which still would’ve been a high number — things might have changed.”
Is that the most frustrating element of this deal? You’ve said in the past that you expect a hit an inning. It’s the walks that are the killer.
A: “That’s how it goes. (But) what we’ve been really careful to do is not turn this thing into Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal) shooting free throws, where the whole world wants to help him. As frustrating as it can be for everybody else, the fans, imagine us — we’ve gotta pick ’em up and dust ’em off and get ’em going the next day. I’m inspired and impressed by their ability to do that. Even the ones that aren’t doing great.”
What are some of the things you’ve tried to turn this around?
A: “You change up the routine and do different things. But you’ve gotta be careful; it’s not like we’re gonna reinvent the wheel. It’s, ‘Take a breath. Get the sign. See the target. Commit to the target. Attack it.’ That’s what we gotta do.
“I’m a former pitcher. I’ve been Gil (Luna) before. (The talented sophomore left-hander has walked 25 batters in 18º innings.) I walked 18 guys in four innings in Legion Ball when I was 17 years old. I know what that’s like. It’s hard.”
Were there any points this year — maybe the Washington series — where you felt like it’s turning?
A: “Yeah, I did. A lot of people contributed to that (nine runs allowed in three games), so you thought they would draw some confidence from that and continue to move forward. I don’t think it’s as bad as it was, but it’s certainly not where they want it to be. We all share the same expectations.”
How much blame do you put on yourself?
A: “I’d rather take the blame than they do, for sure. However, having said that, I’ve worked longer, harder, more than ever. I’m not a sleepless-nights guy, but if it’s not right, I’m up early. I’m here all the time trying (to) do anything that we can to help them.”
Have you had any restless nights over this?
A: “Sure. It’s hard to go to sleep. Then you toss and turn. You look, and it’s 4 (a.m.), and go, ‘Well, the heck with it; I might as well get up, shower, come in and try to find something.’
“I’m here a lot. (But) I’m not tooting my horn. The whole group’s in here. Everybody’s in here. I’m not special that way.”
Given how much time, energy and effort you’re putting into this — likewise the players — do you ever get to a point where you’re like, what am I missing here?
A: “I don’t know what good that does. I really don’t. As the coach, I can’t lose it. That’s not going to help.
“It may seem like I’m at a loss; I’m not. But to just sit there, pull my hair out, throw my hands up and go, ‘I don’t know what to do’ … There’s one thing to do: Keep coming out, every day, and grind — (keep) working and paying attention to the details.”
Is it possible that these struggles will help these guys in the long run, even though it stinks to go through now?
A: “That’s my job. That’s why we do an individual evaluation of each outing (and) go over pitch by pitch.
“Vince Vannelle’s down. (The junior right-hander allowed the go-ahead runs, including a two-run homer by Hunter Bishop, in Tuesday’s 10-7 loss to Arizona State.) I’m going, ‘Hey, Vin, that’s the only pitch — the 2-0 change that you didn’t quite get there on Bishop. That’s it. You throw that thing lower and a little wider and he caps it, you’re out of the inning.’
“What’s the saying? It’s easy when it’s easy, and it’s hard when it’s hard. They’ve been tested.”
- Catcher-first baseman Matthew Dyer (hand) and infielder Tony Bullard (nose) remain day to day, Johnson said. Neither was able to participate in practice Wednesday.
- UA left-hander Randy Labaut (5-3, 5.98) is likely to start the series opener. USC’s probable starter is junior righty Connor Lunn (6-2, 2.70).