OMAHA, Neb. -- Jared Oliva is the best athlete on the Arizona baseball team.
"He wins every strength-and-conditioning competition that we have," Wildcats coach Jay Johnson said.
"Watching him work out," said catcher Cesar Salazar, "is something else."
Yet despite his size, strength and speed, the 6-foot-3-inch, 188-pound Oliva always plays as if he has something to prove. In his mind, he's still the walk-on who came to the UA with no guarantee of making the team -- not the Wildcats' RBI leader in the College World Series.
On the sport's biggest stage, Oliva is showing glimpses of the potential that Johnson believes could make him "one of the best players in college baseball" someday. Oliva has four RBIs -- including two via home run in Wednesday's 3-0 victory over UC Santa Barbara -- in a tournament in which runs have been extremely difficult to come by.
"This is a guy that really wants to be successful," said Johnson, whose team hopes to keep its season alive against Oklahoma State in Omaha on Friday afternoon. "In baseball, sometimes that can be a bad thing in terms of putting a little too much pressure on yourself."
That's the biggest challenge Oliva faces now. The redshirt sophomore is ensconced as Arizona's starting center fielder. But he's so intense that he sometimes squeezes the bat too tightly with his vise-like hands.
"Jared really needs to relax," said his father, David Oliva, a former center fielder who reached the Double-A level in the Boston Red Sox organization. "Even people that don't really know him but see him, they say, 'Man, he looks tight.' "
Jared Oliva is fully aware of the problem -- "Breathe. Relax. It's as simple as that," he said -- and he's working on correcting it. It's the way he approaches every test.Jared was born with baseball genes; David's older brother, Steve, also played in the minors. The youngest of David and Beth Oliva's three boys also had a love for the game. "Jared was the type of kid who slept in his uniform before the game the next day," David Oliva said.
But Jared encountered bumps along the way. He broke his wrist as a freshman at Valencia High School in Valencia, California. He barely played as a sophomore and junior. He started for about half his senior season. He had no scholarship offers.
However, then-Arizona assistant Shaun Cole saw something in Oliva at a camp. Cole invited Oliva to the UA as a walk-on. He'd be a preferred walk-on, but he still had to try out to make the team. Even his father wasn't sure it was the best move.
"I was very skeptical," David Oliva said. "I wanted to be realistic about his ability as it stood at the time. But Jared is very focused and goal-oriented. And he worked very hard."
Arizona offered no assurances. Jared was undeterred. But he knew he had to get better, and fast.
He came to the UA early, the summer before his freshman year, and began working with strength coach Jim Krumpos.
"I got my butt kicked, let's just say that," said Oliva, who weighed only 165 pounds at the time.
"(But) I felt like I needed every advantage I could get. Coming in, I was already a step ahead in the weight room. I knew that would help me on the field."
It did. So did Oliva's mindset. He was determined to beat out players whose resumes were much more extensive.
"I was confident in my ability, that I could make it at the D-I level," Oliva said. "So I decided to roll with it. Took a chance. And here we are today."Oliva made the team and redshirted as a freshman in 2014. The former high school backup became a semi-regular last year, starting 38 games and batting .272. He began this season as the starting center fielder but slumped in late April and temporarily lost his job.
Johnson reinserted Oliva into the lineup in late May, primarily because of his stellar defense. He entered the College World Series batting .236.
But some advice from senior right fielder Zach Gibbons on the eve of the tournament put Oliva's mind at ease. Gibbons, Oliva, Salazar and left fielder Alfonso Rivas III had dinner together during the Wildcats' brief return to Tucson. They talked hitting. Gibbons, the UA's leading batter, showed Oliva some notes a former hitting coach had sent him. Gibbons' main message, as related by Salazar: "Swing the bat. You have a good swing. Just trust yourself."
"Something clicked," Oliva said, several days and RBIs later.
The first two came Saturday against Miami. Oliva, a right-handed batter, stroked a 1-2 pitch down the right-field line for a single to give Arizona a 3-0 lead in what became a 5-1 victory. The other two came on a homer that Oliva crushed to left field in the third inning against UCSB.
Oliva is still batting just .239, but he has a five-game hitting streak. He also has seven triples this season, second most on the team and an illustration of what he's capable of producing.
Oliva has power. He has run the 60-yard dash in 6.38 seconds, better than the MLB average of about 6.9 (which Oliva ran as a scrawny freshman). He simply needs reps after barely playing in high school.
"He's always had the tools," Johnson said. "It takes time to get good. Development happens at different times, and I'm really glad some of his development is starting to happen right now."
Oliva hoped to continue that development in the Cape Cod League this summer, but his team recently dropped him, his father said. They are scrambling for a place for Oliva to play once the UA's season ends.
"It's not right," David Oliva said. "But he'll persevere."
He always does.
This article was written by Michael Lev from The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.