Arizona Wildcats coach Jay Johnson knew what he was getting in Cal Stevenson. Johnson had coached Stevenson at Nevada, where he was the Mountain West co-Freshman of the Year in 2015. Johnson fondly refers to the aggressive outfielder as a “baseball rat.”
In his first season in Tucson, Stevenson eventually produced the numbers Johnson was expecting. Heading into the next one, Stevenson is a known commodity — an established veteran. There’s a comfort in that.
But in critical ways, Stevenson has changed and grown. He has a “new” position, center field, where he had played his whole life before shifting to right last season. He has a new jersey number, 8, same as Cal Ripken Jr., for whom Stevenson was named. And he has a new role: team leader.
The latter didn’t just happen. Even though he was familiar with Johnson and the coaching staff, Stevenson felt like the new guy last season because, well, he was. Now he’s a returning senior whom Johnson trusted to serve as a captain in the recently completed Wild vs. Cats Fall World Series.
“As a first-year player, he did it in the best way that he could and is now really solidified,” Johnson said. “He’s one of those guys that earns the respect of his teammates, and I think we have several of those. Cesar (Salazar, the junior catcher) is the same way. Those are easy guys to follow.
“It’s not just production or (being an) All-Pac-12 player, it’s their commitment to discipline on a daily basis. It’s about doing what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it.”
Stevenson feels much more comfortable in that position now. He has evolved, organically, into a vocal leader, helping younger teammates such as sophomore Matt Fraizer and freshman Donta Williams with words of encouragement.
“When a guy makes a mistake or doesn’t make an execution play, like a bunt or something, you kind of bring him to the side, talk him through it,” Stevenson said. “Like, ‘Hey man, it’s all right. Just do this a little better and you would have gotten it down. You can’t really dwell on that. Get to the next play, because we’re going to need you.’ ”
Stevenson faced his own challenges last season. He started out hot, peaking with a .358 average on March 12 after a 3-for-3, three-walk, five-run performance against Hartford.
When the pitching started to get tougher, Stevenson slumped. His average fell as low as .264, and he was stuck in the .260s and .270s through late April.
“There were some points in the season where I was trying to figure some stuff out,” Stevenson said.
He began to figure it out in the April 27-29 Stanford series and took off from there. Stevenson finished the season with a .311 average and led the Pac-12 in walks (48) and runs (61).
He attributed his recovery mainly to pregame preparation — getting in the right frame of mind and working on critical adjustments in practice.
“We really pride ourselves on the mental game here, making each game, each inning, each at-bat or pitch kind of have a life of its own,” Johnson said. “He did a good job of getting through that. It’s really tough (for) college baseball players to learn. He has good baseball maturity to him. That just kind of exemplified that.”
Stevenson will be a fixture at or near the top of what should be a potent Arizona lineup. And he’ll back in familiar territory in center field, where his range and arm will be critical assets for a team seeking a third straight NCAA Tournament berth.
“Going back there this fall felt a little different,” Stevenson said. “But I’m back to where I needed to be.”
Junior right-hander Cody Deason touched 95 mph during the Fall World Series, which concluded Nov. 19. He’s on track for a prominent spot in the rotation.
- Johnson said senior righty Tylor Megill also has “moved towards the front of the pack” for a rotation spot. Megill transferred to Arizona last year and performed inconsistently. He lost weight in the offseason, and Stevenson said Megill’s stuff has become “more explosive.”
- Freshman Jacob Blas had an impressive fall camp and is expected to have an immediate impact, possibly as the starting shortstop. At worst, Blas will be part of a three-player rotation at the middle-infield spots with sophomore Cameron Cannon and transfer Travis Moniot.
- Catcher-first baseman Michael Benson could work his way into the mix at designated hitter. The transfer might have the best natural power on the team, Johnson said.
- Two-way player Cameron Haskell missed the fall because of injury but is expected to be cleared soon. Johnson considers the transfer “a sleeper” who has “a lot of ability.”
- The Wildcats’ first official practice is scheduled for Jan. 26. They open the 2018 season against Bryant (R.I.) on Feb. 16 at Hi Corbett Field.