The Arizona baseball team went just about as far as you can go in an NCAA regional without winning it. The Wildcats fought gallantly through the losers’ bracket and that effort will help the disappointment quickly fade.
It will be replaced just as quickly with pressure.
Last year was planting. This year was growth. Next year needs to be the harvest.
It’s hard to find fault in the loss on Tuesday. You can argue Andy Lopez left Kurt Heyer in too long, or debate who came out of the bullpen and when, but the fact remains the Cats played nine innings and didn’t score any runs. The rules make it pretty clear that’s a bad idea.
It’s hard to find fault in the regional as a whole. Heyer pitched in 15 innings and didn’t give up a run in 13 of them. Kyle Simon threw another complete game. Konner Wade had his best performance of the year. Nick Cunningham went from hidden to hero.
On offense, every time the Cats scored, they won.
The only what-if is what would’ve happened if Arizona had scored some runs on Friday? Simon’s gem could’ve been against Texas A&M and then Wade’s strong outing might have been enough to win the regional.
So it goes. When you take a step back there isn’t a lot to complain about with the 2011 baseball season. Next year, however? The stakes go way up.
Even if the UA loses all four of the active players taken on the first two days of the draft the lineup is packed with experience. The four everyday sophomores will be everyday juniors. Steve Selsky and Jett Bandy weren’t drafted in the first 30 rounds so if they return as the 2010 versions of themselves you won’t have to worry about too many shutouts.
The weekend rotation appears to be set with Heyer, Wade and Tyler Hale. The bullpen will need to be rebuilt but junior-to-be Cunningham is a great start.
Put it all together and it’s time to put it all together.
I’m not talking about the tournament. Lopez’s Wildcats are always ready to compete in June. I’m talking about the kind of regular season that smooths out your path in June.
It’s time to make a run at the first Pac-10 title of the Lopez era. It’s time to play postseason games in Tucson.
Hosting a regional is a tricky thing. Travel costs are a legitimate factor when the selection committee puts together the bracket and they just aren’t going to put two regionals in the state of Arizona. You don’t have to look any further than 2008 when the Cats were a 1-seed and had to travel to Michigan.
The Wildcats haven’t been hosting because they haven’t been better than Arizona State, who has played at home five straight years.
The UA will be better than ASU in 2012. At least on Selection Monday.
The Sun Devils will lose their appeal just like USC football and as a result ASU will be ineligible for next year’s tournament. Arizona could not ask for a better scenario when trying to break a 19-year drought without a regional in Tucson.
Andy Lopez wasn’t shy in his postgame comments about expressing jealousy when discussing the atmosphere at Texas A&M’s home park.
“What is this, 12:30 on a Tuesday?” he asked. “That’s a good job getting fans out and having great support of baseball here. I miss it sometimes.”
Arizona softball just set an NCAA single-season attendance record so there are plenty of Wildcat fans who enjoy bat-and-ball games, but they aren’t coming to Sancet Stadium. It’s a chicken-and-egg discussion that’s been going on for years among those who care about UA baseball. Would bigger attendance lead to more wins, or are more wins needed to boost attendance?
It also wouldn’t be college sports if you didn’t mention the F-word. Do you need better facilities to win big, or do you need more wins to justify upgrading facilities?
The bottom line for the BatCats is the money isn’t coming any time soon. The athletic department’s fundraising efforts are focused on the resurrected basketball program, the new football stadium scoreboard and the Taj Mahal off the UA Mall. And that’s fine. If you’re not strong in the Big Two there’s no money for anybody else.
So Wildcat baseball will have to fend for itself in the short-term. The good news is the short-term future looks bright.
To help turn that short-term goodness into long-term strength, the Arizona baseball program needs to produce that big harvest.
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