TUCSON, Ariz. -- When Jay Johnson took over as Arizona's head coach in the summer of 2015, he was familiar with JJ Matijevic - who was a big-name prospect on the showcase circuit during his high school days. But Matijevic was coming off a rough freshman season during which he hit just .238, so Johnson wasn't quite sure what to expect from him going forward.
"I'd heard a lot about him and his potential," Johnson said. "But the first time I saw him swing the bat, I remember seeing the tools, the bat speed, the power, I remember thinking, 'This guy's got a lot of potential, but he's got a long way to go.'
"When I first saw him, there were a lot of moving parts to his setup and approach. He wasn't square, his swing was very violent but it was in and out of the zone quickly, and in my opinion he was very pitchable. So we've made some gradual strides through the next year and a half to take some of that away. His bat just needs to be in the zone long enough to play effectively, and that's what he's done. Now there's not a lot of ways to get him out."
Matijevic made immediate progress under Johnson, hitting .287 with 17 doubles as a sophomore. But as a junior this spring, he has blossomed into one of college baseball's best hitters. Through 31 games, he already has more doubles (20) than he had in 71 games last year. In fact, he leads the nation in doubles, and he has also set a new career high with six homers (compared with four last year) and 38 RBIs (compared with 37 last year). He's slashing .395/.438/.690, and he has become the true centerpiece of an Arizona offense that leads the nation in scoring at 9.1 runs per game.
Matijevic's strength has never been in doubt. But his approach has come a long way, and that's been the key to his development. Johnson said first and foremost, Matijevic has gotten a lot better at getting into hitters' counts and swinging at pitches he can drive. He's just become a more mature hitter.
He's also starting to tap into his big lefthanded power potential, though Arizona's spacious home ballpark is more geared toward hitting doubles and triples than home runs.
"I think the power has the potential to be special. Special-special," Johnson said. "Obviously having had (Kris) Bryant, it's not quite that, but better than any other lefthanded hitter that I've coached, and I've coached some good ones. I think that is going to play at a really high level for him."
Matijevic was a high school shortstop, and the Wildcats experimented with him at second base last year and heading into this year, but he has really found a home at first base, where he has made big strides as a defender over the last month. Johnson said he's about an average runner who can hold his own at an outfield corner as well, but he figures to hit for enough power and average to profile at first base.
Matijevic has shined with a wood bat in the Cape Cod League over the last two summers. He got a late start last summer after playing in the College World Series until June 30, but he hit the ground running for Falmouth, homering in his first game and hitting .357 with five homers and 25 RBIs in 31 games.
"He's a baseball guy. You have to eat up baseball to be successful playing for us, and he was every bit of that. Four days after the national championship game, he was in the lineup in the Cape - that tells you everything you need to know about how he feels about baseball," Johnson said.
And that's what Johnson really loves about Matijevic - his enthusiasm for the game and his energy. He was part of Arizona's leadership group as a sophomore last year, and he has an invaluable clubhouse presence now as a junior. Johnson says that might catch outsiders by surprise because Matijevic "has a flair about what he does," but he has a very special devotion to his team and to the game of baseball.
"He's been awesome. I could talk about him forever, that's how I feel about him," Johnson said. "First off, he plays with a lot of energy, which everybody can see, which our team feeds off of. But as a person, he's as good a leader and teammate as you could ask for, on top of all the tools stuff. So he's kind of the energizer of our team, if you will, on top of the production, which has been nothing short of remarkable this year.
"He has a great feel for his teammates. He pushes guys when they need to be pushed, and the way that he works and the type of player he is, his word is respected for it. When he needs to pick a guy up and make him feel better, I know I can count on him to do that. He's one of those guys you wish you could coach forever because he has such a positive impact on everybody around him."
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