Ryan Aguilar, a transfer from Santa Ana College who struggled last season, leads the Wildcats in batting average, slugging percentage and RBIs. “Last year I was pressing a lot. This year I’m just having fun,” the first baseman said.

The transition from high school to college isn’t as easy as some exceptional freshmen make it look. The move from junior college to Division I doesn’t always go smoothly either.

Ryan Aguilar struggled in his first season as an Arizona Wildcat. The transfer from Santa Ana College started only 12 games and batted .190.

“Coming in last year, it was just a big transition,” Aguilar said. “It just took me a year to figure out what the deal is in D-1.”

Aguilar seems to have figured it out. In a year’s time, he has gone from bit player to offensive force.

Heading into Arizona’s Pac-12 home opener against UCLA on Thursday, Aguilar leads the Wildcats in batting average (.350), slugging percentage (.600) and RBIs (18).

He is tied with projected first-round draft pick Bobby Dalbec for the team lead in home runs (four). Aguilar and teammate Zach Gibbons have reached base in all 20 of Arizona’s games.

“This year I’m a little more relaxed,” Aguilar said. “Last year I was pressing a lot. This year I’m just having fun, being thankful, playing for the moment.”

Like several of his teammates, Aguilar has benefited from swing changes under first-year coach Jay Johnson and his staff.

Aguilar, who has moved from outfield to first base, always possessed the requisite athletic ability. As he started to see positive results, his confidence resurfaced.

“I could see why the previous coaching staff liked him,” Johnson said.

“It took about a month, and then you could really see some quick development, which is a tribute to his work ethic and athleticism. He’s just consistent on a daily basis in what he’s been doing, and it’s paying off.”

The left-handed-hitting Aguilar has three home runs in the past three games, including a mammoth shot over the right-field wall Tuesday night in Arizona’s 14-0 victory over Utah Valley at Hi Corbett Field. When told he had as many home runs as Dalbec, Aguilar laughed.

“I try not to think about that,” he said after the game. “I just try to stick with my approach. It’s working out for me. Just keeping the game simple, trusting myself and hitting the ball hard.

“The home run today, I was literally thinking, ‘Up the middle.’ It just happened. That’s usually how it happens. My approach is middle-away, and home runs just come.”

Well, they do now.

New No. 3 starter

Arizona’s pitching rotation for the UCLA series, subject to change, is as follows: JC Cloney on Thursday, Nathan Bannister on Friday and Dalbec on Saturday.

Dalbec, the Wildcats’ starting third baseman, primarily had served as a closer when called upon to pitch. That changed Sunday at Washington. Dalbec entered in the second inning, pitched six frames and earned the win in Arizona’s 17-7 victory.

“There’s no way we were letting that game get away,” Johnson said.

Tuesday’s game gave Johnson confidence that the rest of the staff is coming around. Five pitchers — Austin Schnabel, Cody Moffett, Cody Deason, Austin Rubick and Alfonso Rivas — combined to shut out Utah Valley.

“Probably the highlight of the night for me,” Johnson said.

Inside pitch

  • UCLA (11-7, 3-0 Pac-12) is ranked in all five major NCAA Division I baseball polls, including 14th by Baseball America. The Bruins have won five in a row. “They’re kind of the kingpin of the league,” Johnson said. Arizona (14-6, 1-2) had won seven in a row before dropping 2 of 3 at UW.
  • UA lefty Tyler Crawford began a throwing program Monday. The senior has yet to pitch this season after experiencing soreness in his arm after Tommy John surgery. He could be available next week.
  • The new, bigger scoreboard at Hi Corbett is expected to be operational in time for Thursday’s first pitch. The Wildcats and Wolverines played without a scoreboard Tuesday.

Reporter

Michael is an award-winning journalist who has been covering sports professionally since the early '90s. He started at the Star in 2015 after spending 15 years at The Orange County Register. Michael is a graduate of Northwestern University.