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Arizona Starts Hot Under New Coach Chip Hale

ARLINGTON, Texas – After two days at the State Farm College Baseball Classic, Arizona stands alone in the field as an undefeated team. The other five teams in the tournament, held at the Rangers’ Globe Life Field, have all tripped up along the way.

The 13th-ranked Wildcats have stayed perfect two days into the season, however. They first beat Kansas State, 8-6, on Opening Day and then routed Oklahoma, 14-4, on Saturday.

After some Opening Day jitters Friday, the Wildcats were back to doing what they do best Saturday against Oklahoma.

“We were all so jacked up to play yesterday, me included at 57 years old,” coach Chip Hale said. “I was coming out of my skin. We were much more relaxed (Saturday) and got back to the things we do well.”

Outfielder Tanner O’Tremba said the Wildcats were more comfortable with the first game under their belts.

“I think we all had first game jitters and it’s a big ballpark,” he said. “Today, we truly settled in and took control of our identity.”

That meant a collectively improved approach at the plate, as Arizona scored 14 runs on 15 hits and five walks, while striking out just four times. The Wildcats played clean defense and got solid performances on the mound from four pitchers. Even after opening a 10-run lead in the seventh inning, Arizona continued to play hard and disciplined.

Arizona has a veteran roster and many of the players its relying on were a part of last year’s College World Series team. That roster is working with a new coach, however, as Hale took over the program following Jay Johnson’s departure for Louisiana State.

Hale, an Arizona alumnus, was hired away from the Detroit Tigers, where he was serving as third base coach. While he has not coached in college, he has an extensive CV in pro ball, including two seasons as the D-backs manager.

It’s early, but, so far, the coaching transition seems to have been just about seamless. The Wildcats are bought in and all pulling in the same direction.

“They’re great kids,” Hale said. “Kudos to Jay – they’re all his recruits. It’s a wonderful group of guys.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is Arizona’s ability at the plate. The Wildcats last year were one of the best offenses in the country and even after losing their top five hitters and Johnson, the lineup is still rolling.

Outfielder Mac Bingham (2-for-4, 2B, 3B, 2 R) and O’Tremba (3-for-5, 3B, HR, 3 R) led the way Saturday. They are emblematic of Arizona’s new-look lineup. Both were in the mix in 2021 – Bingham started 38 games and got 141 at bats, while O’Tremba had 67 at bats – but neither was headlining the lineup.

Now, however, Bingham has taken over as the leadoff hitter and O’Tremba is hitting in the middle of the order. Similarly, players like second baseman Tyler Casagrande, outfielder Chase Davis and DH Blake Paugh are taking on regular roles for the first time in 2022.

They’ve run with that opportunity at Globe Life Field.

“The starters had a chance to play the last couple years,” Hale said. “But they never really said, ‘You’re the guy, you’re going to play every day.’ So, that opportunity has been great.”

O’Tremba has homered in both games to start the season after hitting just two home runs in 2021. He worked this fall with new hitting coach Toby DeMello to refine his swing, shortening his stroke and keeping his bat in the zone as long as possible.

The early returns have been very positive for O’Tremba, something that hasn’t surprised Hale after watching him for the last several months.

“I can tell you our pitchers don’t want to face him,” Hale said. “He hit a lot of balls out in the preseason, and he’s been hitting the ball hard ever since we came back from the break.”

Arizona will face another hurdle Sunday when it takes on No. 23 Texas Tech in its finale at the State Farm Showdown. The Red Raiders (1-1) have played two close games in the tournament and are led by All-American second baseman Jace Jung.

An undefeated Opening Weekend would make for a sensational start to Hale’s tenure at Arizona, but what the Wildcats have already shown makes it clear that they can again compete at a high level in 2022.

Tracy Smith (Andrew Woolley Four Seam Images)

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