Arizona head coach Jay Johnson (red shirt) prepares his players for the 2016 season. (University of Arizona athletics)

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Arizona, Johnson Hit Ground Running

HOUSTON — It’s not every day you see a baseball team win by imposing a tempo on its opponent, but that’s what Arizona did in an 8-1 season-opening victory at Rice. What will show up in the box score as patient and timely hitting felt in the moment like a soccer team running a high press.

All told it was quite the debut for new Arizona head coach Jay Johnson, who takes over a program that’s foundered since winning the national title in 2012, and lost two top-50 draft picks from a team that didn’t even manage a regional appearance last year.

On the road, in the first test under a new coaching staff, you could forgive the Wildcats for being overwhelmed by the pressure and bright lights. But just the opposite happened at Reckling Park on Friday night — Arizona showed up with nine months’ worth of pent-up energy and poured it into the game’s early innings.

“Proactive” would be one way of describing Arizona’s game plan.

While his lineup assailed Rice starter Blake Fox, Johnson’s bench put on an impressive theatrical display, cheering, waving towels, climbing the railing and at one point, emptying the dugout to celebrate a successful sacrifice bunt. Even by the more exuberant standards of college baseball, it was like the pit at a metal concert crossed with a Greek chorus.

“They work hard,” Johnson said by way of explanation. “When we talk about weightlifting, we talk about individual work, good practice, they’ve invested a lot and gameday is the reward. We have a mission statement, and part of the mission statement is to play with energy. We’ll always play with class, but it’s fun to see them play with energy.”

It was a comprehensive effort that involved capitalizing on unforced errors — the Wildcats drew 10 walks and were hit with two pitches, while none of their six hits were particularly hard-hit. Arizona stole four bases and took extra bases on throws several times, while converting three Rice errors into four unearned runs. Arizona, meanwhile, didn’t commit a single error, while starter J.C. Cloney and relievers Cody Moffett and Robby Medel combined to allow only four baserunners all night, none of them by walk. Football teams talk about winning the turnover battle — this game was decided by a huge differential in free bases.

Fox struggled with his command, walking five and hitting one, while running deep counts on several other hitters in his 3 2/3 innings. Arizona’s hitters were never able to solve Fox’s curveball, which came in about 15 miles an hour slower than his fastball and garnered several ugly swings and misses. But since Fox was so often behind in the count with men on base, they didn’t really have to. As Arizona continued to draw walks and take the extra base, Fox slowed down his tempo, but the Wildcats continued to press Rice into mistakes. It was, in short, the kind of selective aggression you hear coaches across the country striving for from their offenses.

On the mound, Cloney was the opposite — no overpowering stuff, but a strong commitment to the strike zone, which was good enough for six near-perfect innings until Rice shortstop Tristan Gray homered to lead off the seventh. In total, Cloney struck out nine in seven innings while walking none, with the only run coming off Gray’s solo homer.

“Stellar,” Johnson said of the College of the Canyons transfer. “I knew he was good — the day after I was hired I was on a plane, and the first person I met with was him. It was right during the draft, and I wanted to make sure we got him here. It was a great performance.”

Between Cloney’s efficiency and the Arizona offense’s penchant for working deep counts and forcing plays on the bases, the best way to describe the key to the Wildcats’ success is that they dominated time of possession.

Though Arizona clearly went out of its way to pound the zone on defense and press the issue on offense, Johnson doesn’t want to pigeonhole his team into this exciting but floorslapperish mode of play.

“We want to be able to win any kind of game,” he said. “Sometimes it’s going to be a pitcher’s duel in a one-run game. Sometimes the ball’s gonna carry out of certain places. We just want to be adaptable, and whatever that day presents, for us to try to get the job done.”

Not only were there no opening night jitters for Arizona, but the same was true of Johnson himself. After the game, the point he kept coming back to was how hard his players had worked in the offseason and how prepared they were as a result.

“It was good to see them enjoy this experience,” he said. “It was a great crowd tonight, and this is perennially one of the best programs in the country, and so it was good to see them enjoy it.”

Pleased as he is with how his tenure’s going so far, Johnson is past the point where going to work in a jersey that reads “Arizona” and not “Nevada” feels weird.

“This place has felt like home pretty quickly, and I give all the credit to our players,” he said. “They’ve really embraced what we’ve done and put in front of them from day one. And they were prepared to play tonight — that wasn’t an accident. It was fun to see a lot of their work and the time they’ve put in turn into good play.”

Arizona will put its perfect record on the line on Saturday afternoon. We’ll see if the good times continue.

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