The Cats

The Cats had to hang up their high-fives for the year.
Photo by David Kadlubowski/The Arizona Republic

The Arizona Wildcats baseball team saw its season end with two losses in three games at the Fort Worth Regional in the 2010 NCAA tournament.

The weekend got off to a good – albeit uncomfortable – start. The Wildcats built a 10-4 lead against Baylor in Friday’s game before the Bears stormed back with five runs in the bottom of the 9th to put a real scare into the guys from Tucson.

Saturday’s game was against host TCU and its 1st-round pitcher Matt Purke. The Cats fell behind early as Kyle Simon gave up six runs in 3.2 innings and the UA never got closer than three runs.

That set up a do-or-die rematch with Baylor and the Wildcats did not do. The Bears took the lead for good in the 8th thanks to a hit-by-pitch, sacrifice bunt, intentional walk, error and sacrifice fly.

You would have liked to see Arizona get another crack at the regional’s top seed but that didn’t help Baylor any as BU was promptly shut out, 9-0, and eliminated by TCU.

Shortstop Alex Mejia was the UA’s best hitter in Fort Worth, batting .636, but that’s not a surprise since he was the team’s hottest hitter for the last part of the year. The surprise is that he stayed in the 9th spot in the batting order the entire time.

The college baseball season is too short to ignore hot streaks or ride out slumps. If a guy’s on a roll you have to get him to the plate as many times as possible. Mejia produced eight runs in the regional. How many more would he have put on the board if he was hitting before or after Josh Garcia?

Garcia was the out-of-nowhere batting star with five hits and two home runs in the three games. The junior is the big what-if for the season. He played the whole year with a tear in his knee and never could get things going. His slugging display in Fort Worth (including a shot against Purke) gave him three homers in just 12 starts. It’s easy to extrapolate that into some nice power numbers over a full season.

The surprise pitching star in the regional was Tyler Hale. Coach Andy Lopez played a hunch and gave the freshman his first career start in the Baylor rematch. Hale responded by going seven full innings allowing just three hits and two runs. Perhaps Hale as a starting pitcher is the second big what-if for the season.

So 2010 comes to a close for the BatCats. The obvious highlight was the 15-game winning streak, but the absolute best stretch was a 12-day span in mid-April. The Cats took two of three at Washington for its first (and only) road series win. The following weekend featured the four-run 9th inning rally to complete the sweep against Washington State. To top it off you had the 4-2 Tuesday night win at ASU, the Devils’ only non-conference loss of the year.

It’s usually hard to identify the turning point in a team’s season, but with this squad you can pinpoint the exact moment when things went south. In the very next game after the ASU win Arizona held a 2-1 lead with two outs in the 9th against UCLA. Third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean misplayed a ground ball to allow the tying run to score. The Bruins scored four runs in the top of the 10th inning and the Wildcats proceeded to lose 15 of their 22 games.

I’m not saying one play by one kid torpedoed the season but this group of young guys really fed off each other. If things started going well they quickly built momentum. But when they hit a bump in the road they spun out of control like a teenager trying to show off in his dad’s car.

Field that grounder and you probably win the series. Beat UCLA and maybe the confidence helps you blow through the USC and Bakersfield series. Does that then turn around the 4-2 score in the final game of the ASU series for some serious momentum? Add one more to the what-if column.

Even though the team finished the season in a steady back-peddle, the bottom line is the year was a success. The goal in February was to make the tournament. Mission accomplished.

As an added bonus the team competed in Fort Worth and came away with some valuable experience. In practice you can’t mimic the pressure of close games in June. You don’t know what it’s like trying to choke off a 9th inning rally until you’re out there sweating on the mound. You don’t know what it’s like to hit representing the tying run in the 8th inning until you’re standing in that batter’s box.

The experience of this weekend – and the reality of coming up short – will serve the Wildcats well as they move into 2011.

At the top of the offseason wish list is getting Steve Selsky to come back to school. Since he turns 21 in July the sophomore is eligible for this year’s draft. Selsky led the team in batting average, home runs, RBIs, runs, slugging percentage and on-base percentage (the sextuple crown?). Considering he could be drafted again as a junior and still maintain negotiating leverage there’s a chance Selsky returns to spend another season anchoring the middle of Arizona’s lineup and gunning people down from right field. He is easily the Cats’ biggest recruit for 2011.

After that the key to next year will be the development of this year’s very active freshman class. Can guys like Robert Refsnyder, Joey Rickard and Mejias-Brean draw more walks to keep runners on the bath paths? Can the team cut down on errors (3rd most in the Pac-10) and unearned runs (71 total)?

On the mound can Kurt Heyer make the jump from Very Good to Elite? Will a legitimate closer finally step forward? Is there a quality third (and fourth) starter in the group? We saw flashes from Nick Cunningham, Stephen Manthei, Vincent Littleman and – as of Sunday – Tyler Hale. Who is going to put it together for a breakout sophomore campaign?

2010 was much better than 2009 for Arizona Baseball and the raw materials are there for a bigger step forward in 2011.

Now’s the time for the Cats to step on the gas.