Despite injuries to key players, the Arizona Wildcats remain one of the most potent offensive teams in the nation. They rank second in runs per game, second in on-base percentage and third in batting average.
Despite the key role he plays in tutoring the UA hitters, Marc Wanaka remains an unpaid volunteer assistant.
Last month, a proposal that would have given college baseball and softball programs the option to convert a volunteer assistant position into a full-time role failed to pass. It was a hugely disappointing outcome for both sports.
“Unfortunately, we just didn’t have enough support around the country,” said UA coach Jay Johnson, who backed the proposal and had the support of athletic director Dave Heeke. “I just know we have a really valuable person in that spot that works his tail off. If you’ve seen our team play, you know he’s had a real positive impact.”
Wanaka — or “Chief,” as just about everyone calls him — has been a member of Johnson’s staff since their time at Nevada. Like others in his position, Wanaka is technically a volunteer assistant. Most of his compensation comes from summer baseball camps. He does not receive a paycheck, or the corresponding benefits, from the UA. He also isn’t allowed to recruit.
Nonetheless, Wanaka puts in countless hours working with the hitters — he’s Arizona’s primary batting coach — and compiling scouting reports. His contributions are deeply appreciated in the Wildcats’ clubhouse. Ask any player about his progress as a hitter, and he will surely drop Wanaka’s name.
“Marc is a great baseball coach,” said Johnson, whose surging team visits Penn State for a three-game series starting Thursday. “He deserves a ton of credit.
“I kinda set the foundation of what we’re going to be offensively, the targets we have to get to and the things we’re going to implement. And he does a really good job of the nuts and bolts of individual work with players that helps them build confidence.
“He’s as good with the players as anybody I’ve ever worked with – their respect for his knowledge, their respect for his work ethic. Because of that, he has instantaneous buy-in with them.
“Our players were disappointed that (the proposal) didn’t pass because they know the type of worker he is and the time that he puts in with them.”
The proof lies in the numbers.
Arizona leads the Pac-12 in runs, hits, doubles, triples, extra-base hits, walks, batting average and on-base percentage. Four Wildcats — Matthew Dyer, Cameron Cannon, Austin Wells and Nick Quintana — rank in the top 10 in OBP. No other school has more than one player in the top 10.
Arizona’s .320 batting average is its best since 2012, when the Wildcats hit .329 and won the College World Series. With six regular-season games to go, Arizona is averaging 9.34 runs per game. The Wildcats have not eclipsed nine runs per game over a full season since 1998.
They have done it without junior center fielder Matt Fraizer, who was hitting .412 with 28 RBIs in 19 games when he suffered a season-ending hand injury March 17. Dyer, who is batting .393, has missed the past six games because of a hand ailment. He remains day-to-day.
Over those six games, Arizona has averaged 14.2 runs. Even if you take out the Wildcats’ 28-run outburst against Oregon on May 5, that figure sits at 11.4.
Several freshmen have played prominent roles, and this is where Wanaka’s work truly shines. Wells has been a machine all year, his average never dipping below .333. Dayton Dooney was batting .242 on March 9; he’s now at .321. Branden Boissiere has lifted his average from .130 on March 31 to .337. Tony Bullard has lifted his mark from .150 on April 12 to .300.
All have spent innumerable hours in the Terry Francona Hitting Center with Wanaka, who would have a contract on his desk today if Johnson had any say in the matter.
“If this would’ve passed,” he said, “that would’ve been the direction we were going for sure.”
Back on the bubble
Arizona (26-24, 12-14 Pac-12) has won seven of its past eight games, including a doubleheader sweep of Sam Houston State on Monday night. The Wildcats have risen to 55th in RPI; Baseball America placed them among its first four out in its latest projection for the NCAA Tournament field of 64.
Arizona might have a case to make the postseason if it wins its final six games. After the Penn State series, the UA visits Washington State next week.
“I certainly hope so,” Johnson said. “One thing you always hear about is, how are teams playing at the end? Are they finishing strong? We’re certainly trending in that direction. We’re performing our best right now.
“But … we’re not making it about that. It’s about the development of this team and the players on the team.
“They’re feeling good about their opportunities to be successful. We found a little bit of a niche. We’re pitching a little bit better. That’s really all that needed to happen.”
Winning out would put Arizona at 32-24 overall and 15-14 in the Pac-12. The Wildcats’ case is hurt by a 3-16 record against teams in the RPI top 50. A strong finish by Oregon, which currently sits at 51 in RPI, would help. The Wildcats swept the Ducks earlier this season.
- Arizona practiced on Penn State’s campus Wednesday, one day after flying east. The doubleheader against Sam Houston State ended at 11:24 p.m. Monday. The Wildcats bused to Phoenix at 6:30 a.m. for a 10:50 flight to Pittsburgh. They landed there at 5:55 p.m. eastern time, then bused three-plus hours to State College, stopping for dinner along the way.
- Left-hander Randy Labaut (6-3, 5.65 ERA) is expected to start for Arizona on Thursday. Labaut has won his past three starts. He’s likely to face Penn State ace Dante Biasi. The third-year lefty is 3-5 but has a 2.48 ERA, a 1.14 WHIP and 98 strikeouts in 69 innings.
- Johnson is still figuring out Arizona’s rotation for the rest of the series. Lefty Andrew Nardi, who threw 44 pitches Saturday before rain suspended the UA’s game against USC, stayed behind an extra day while recovering from the flu. Righty Quinn Flanagan threw 74 pitches Sunday. Lefty Avery Weems threw a career-high 130 pitches Monday night, when he tossed his first complete game while striking out a career-best eight batters.
- Biasi is the 251st-ranked prospect in Baseball America’s Top 500 for the 2019 MLB draft. Arizona’s Nick Quintana is No. 82. Teammate Cameron Cannon is No. 96. UA signee Andrew Dalquist, a right-hander from Redondo Beach, California, has risen to No. 66.
- Quintana leads the Pac-12 with a career-best 66 RBIs. Cannon is fourth in batting average at .391, trailing Oregon State’s Adley Rutschman (the projected No. 1 pick in the draft), UCLA’s Noah Cardenas and Dyer. Cannon leads the nation with 27 doubles.
- Penn State (22-24) will finish in last place in the Big Ten, but the Nittany Lions rank fourth in the conference and 44th nationally with a 3.89 ERA. Four of their pitchers have sub-3.00 ERAs. Only one Arizona pitcher, Vince Vannelle, has an ERA under 4.00.