The Arizona Wildcats baseball team had a new home but a familiar opponent, a North Dakota State team that got swept in Tucson by a combined score of 30-2 last year.
The crowds came out to Hi Corbett Field but the home team’s season of high hopes got off to a sluggish start.
Opening night’s 3-1 win, with the exception of a few technical difficulties and a lack of offense, went as well as the UA could’ve hoped. The struggles at the plate continued into Saturday and the Arizona bullpen faltered late giving the Bison a surprising 8-2 victory. The Cats bounced back on Sunday behind an impressive debut to win the game, 8-0, and the series.
Fan support was strong in all three games and the weekend’s attendance equaled just shy of a quarter of the home attendance all of last year. That shows how much interest in the program had eroded but it underlines what a positive jolt the change in venues has been in the community.
The crowds were appreciated in the Wildcat dugout. “Our guys had a great time playing in front of this kind of atmosphere,” coach Andy Lopez said.
Sophomore left fielder Johnny Field added, “The atmosphere was just unreal and we hope that crowds like this can continue all year. It can definitely help us out a lot if they do.”
Will the fans from opening weekend come back? If they like good starting pitching they certainly will. The rotation of junior Kurt Heyer and sophomores Konner Wade and James Farris combined to throw 23.1 innings while striking out 26, walking four and allowing just three earned runs for a 1.16 ERA.
Farris, the least experienced of the trio, turned in the best performance. The first out the right-hander recorded on Sunday was just the fourth out of his college career. Twenty-six outs later his first start turned into his first win, first complete game and first shutout. Not a lot of room to top it when his second career start comes around.
At the plate the Wildcats weren’t quite ready for prime time. Even in the Friday night victory the three runs and seven scattered hits didn’t come close to the thrashing of NDSU in last year’s opening series.
“Offensively, it’s sort of embarrassing,” said Robert Refsnyder after Saturday’s loss. “I hold myself accountable as an older guy, as a junior.” The right fielder led by example in the rubber match posting four hits and three RBIs. Refsnyder and Field combined for 13 of the Wildcats’ 22 hits in the series.
Alex Mejia, who hit .335 as a natural right-hander last year, hit .333 (3-for-9) for the weekend batting left-handed for the first time in his career due to a wrist injury. The way some of the other guys struggled they may want to consider a similar strategy.
The UA had a total of six runs in the first 23 innings of the series. You hope the seven-run outpouring over the final three innings was the faucet turning on and the start of things flowing the way they should.
“We’ve got some real good hitters on the team,” Arizona pitcher Konner Wade said. “They’re going to turn it around.”
I agree with him. Field and Refsnyder will anchor the middle of the lineup, Mejia will only get better when his wrist heals and leadoff man Joey Rickard had three walks to go with his three hits. Once the new starters in the bottom half of the order get comfortable I expect the team to look similar to the squad that collectively hit .320 last year.
I’m not as optimistic about the Wildcat bullpen.
Stephen Manthei looked good with two shutout innings on Friday but the next night Manthei combined with fellow juniors Vincent Littleman and Nick Cunningham to face eight batters in the 8th inning and give up six runs while only recording one out. This was the unit that held the Cats back last year and the 2012 edition didn’t do anything to show things will be different.
Lopez may have to look at his other options. He said, “Not a situation to panic but you get a couple chances when you’re a junior and if that doesn’t happen we’ve got to go to the next level. We’ve got some freshman arms and they may want to be out there more than some of the juniors right now.”
From a marketing standpoint the opening weekend was a big success. The fans were energized and involved (the groaning on borderline calls was in midseason form). There were grandparents, college students, couples and kids. From the music to the concessions to the between-inning promotions it was a lively atmosphere completely unlike the last few years at the on-campus stadium.
If you used to go to Toros games or watch spring training you need to give the college game a try at Hi Corbett Field. If you follow UA sports but never got into baseball there’s not going to be a better time than now to see if there is room in your fan life for the BatCats.
On the field? It wasn’t as sexy a start as 30 to 2 but there’s a long way to go before we find out if this team can improve on last year’s regional final. And if you’re building a baseball team, strong starting pitching and a couple red hot hitters in the heart of your lineup is a good foundation.
Baseball is back.
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