The Arizona Wildcats baseball team did its job in May.
As the level of competition went down the UA’s win total went up. The Cats beat the teams they were supposed to beat and got the home sweeps they needed.
But now it’s tournament time, and decent isn’t good enough.
Can the Wildcats go from not-dominated to dominant?
When the team was sitting at 6-9 in Pac-10 play the hope was the Cats could take advantage of a softer back half of the schedule. They did just that and you have to give them credit for it.
“We talked about it when we got back from Oregon,” Arizona coach Andy Lopez said. “‘Show me some toughness,’ and they’ve done a marvelous job with that.”
There’s nothing to be ashamed about when you look at the regular season as a whole. Fourth place in the Pac-10. Third highest overall win total in the conference. Hanging on in a couple of the polls.
The Wildcats were never dominated. They weren’t swept in a three-game series all year. They haven’t suffered a loss by more than four runs in seven weeks.
The flip side, however, is there wasn’t a period of domination either. What was the high point? Taking two of three from a Cal team that might not make the tournament? Rolling SWAC champs Alcorn State? Sweeping two from the 20-win New Mexico team that won the Mountain West tournament?
The BatCats were 4-8 against the Pac-10’s upper division and 11-4 against the lower half.
Not getting embarrassed isn’t enough in the postseason. You need greatness.
The Wildcats believe they have that greatness in them. “I feel really confident with our team,” senior second baseman Bryce Ortega said. “If we can hit the way we can hit and play the way we can play I think we’ve got a really good shot in regionals.”
Lopez feels his team will go as far as its pitching takes it. There’s no denying the starting rotation is stronger than last year. Kurt Heyer and Kyle Simon do have signature wins. Heyer went 3-0 against UCLA, OSU and ASU. Simon has four complete games including two in Pac-10 road games.
Lopez said, “In Heyer and Simon I really feel we can go match up in the first two games.”
The other reason for optimism is the defense behind those pitchers. The UA has committed just 51 errors this year compared to 82 a year ago. The infield turned nine double plays this weekend against Washington.
“I’m really happy with the way we’re playing,” Ortega said about the infield defense. “Not only me but Alex (Mejia), Seth (Mejias-Brean) and Cole Frenzel. I think we’re really communicating well.”
Pitching and defense is what Lopez preached at the beginning of the season and it’s what is going to determine when this team’s season ends.
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I was wrong.
The baseball Wildcats weren’t a factor in the Pac-10 race so there wasn’t a need for a lot of Who do Wildcat fans want to win? this year. I dusted it off last week and the rust showed.
I said the Cats wanted Cal to beat Stanford but that didn’t give Arizona enough credit for being able to sweep Washington. The best case would have been Stanford going 2-1 so both Bay schools finished 14-13. The second-best option is what ended up happening. Stanford won twice but the third game got canceled due to rain so neither team was able to match the UA’s 15 wins.
But that’s not nearly as bad as my attempt to handicap the Pac-10 race.
I’ve been trying to award the championship to Oregon State for a month. I assumed the Beavers would beat USC at home. I assumed OSU would bounce back against Oregon. I assumed ASU would beat UCLA in Tempe.
All that wrong adds up to UCLA’s first outright baseball championship since the Pac-10 merged in 1999. In fact, because the divisional split for baseball predates the admission of the Arizona schools, it’s the Bruins’ first outright title since 1969.
To be fair to the inaccurate prognosticators UCLA’s .667 winning percentage is tied for the worst by a Pac-10 champion in the 13 years since the merge. And who could have predicted the Beavers hitting a dam?
OSU burst on the scene this year by sweeping ASU. They slinked off the scene by getting swept by Oregon. They needed one more win to earn a share of the championship and lost five straight to end the season.
How much are you hating your sports life if you’re a Beaver right now? Your 2008 and ’09 football teams only had to win the Civil War game to go to the Rose Bowl, and now this. Ducks 3, Beavers 0.
OSU will have to take solace in its successful bid to host a regional. The 16 hosts were announced on Sunday and the Pac-10 got a rare third regional.
Andy Lopez was surprised when he heard the news. “That’s fantastic for the conference,” he said, but he quickly added, “I just want to be part of that one day.”
The Pac-10 won’t match last year’s record eight tournament participants but there are seven teams that will be watching the selection show Monday morning. Oregon got its sweep at OSU so the 33-26 Ducks are very much on the bubble. They’ll have to hope the committee ignores their 11-16 conference record.
Arizona’s sweep removed any chance of the Cats getting left out of the field. Now they hope for a good draw and start packing their bags.
Don’t forget to pack the greatness.
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