The Arizona Wildcats hosted the biggest name on their home nonconference schedule when the Auburn Tigers of the Southeastern Conference visited Hi Corbett Field over the weekend.
The Cats looked dominant in the first two games to win the series but Auburn won the nightcap of Saturday’s doubleheader to avoid a sweep.
The UA bats came to life in an 8-1 victory Friday night. Things did not start well for the home team as ace pitcher Kurt Heyer took a line drive off the palm of his throwing hand in the 2nd inning. The junior right-hander stayed the game and went seven innings to earn his second win of the year.
“It was a very courageous move on Kurt Heyer’s part after getting that line drive,” coach Andy Lopez said after the game. “Shows a lot about his makeup as a Friday night guy, and his character.”
Shortstop Alex Mejia wasn’t surprised at what happened or how Heyer responded. “He gets hit a lot,” Mejia said. “He’s always right back up trying to get on the mound and go after guys. He’s not scared at all. That’s what I love about him.”
Mejia was the star at the plate for Arizona after moving up to #2 in the batting order and resuming hitting right-handed full time. The junior hit the Wildcats’ first homerun of the season in the series opener and drove in four runs.
Mejia followed it up with a second long ball in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, a 15-4 UA win. Konner Wade struck out 10 in 6 ⅔ innings and was credited with his first win of the year.
Freshmen pitchers Matt Troupe and Lucas Long repeated their success from the North Dakota State series out of the bullpen. The pair combined to give up just one earned run in 4 ⅓ innings in finishing up the two wins. With the big leads neither was put in a pressure situation but the work is needed.
“We have to get those guys in as much as we can so they get ready for Pac-12 play,” Heyer said. “Every inning that they get, they get a little more experience.”
Auburn turned things around Saturday evening with an 8-3 win. The Tigers knocked UA starter James Farris out of the game in the 4th inning after seven hits and five runs. Junior relievers Stephen Manthei and Nick Cunningham continued their struggles by allowing three runs on five hits in just 2 ⅔ innings of combined work.
The UA coach said he would look at using the freshmen more. Troupe has the most electric stuff of the group but Lopez indicated it was too early to say what his long-term role would be.
“[Troupe’s] got a good arm. He’s got a good breaking ball,” Lopez said. “He wants to compete. He wants to be out there. We’ll see what time will do for us.”
There’s no time like the present for getting the closer position figured out. This team won’t reach any of its goals if it doesn’t have a couple guys who can be counted on to get outs in the 8th and 9th innings. If those players end up being just a year removed from their high school prom, so be it.
The young hitters at the bottom of the Arizona lineup showed signs of life but the top half of the order will be needed to carry the bulk of the load and the doubleheader reinforced that notion. Joey Rickard, Mejia, Robert Refsnyder and Johnny Field combined to go 10-for-18 with four extra-base hits in the win, and 3-for-18 with no extra-base knocks in the loss.
At the end of the day, taking a series from an SEC team is always cause for celebration. Lopez, who used to coach at Florida, respects the conference. “They’re good teams. [Auburn is] a good team,” he said. “But we’re a good team.”
Next weekend the Cats will see what the school that produced Jeremy Lin can do on the baseball diamond. Harvard comes to Hi Corbett for a three game series starting Friday night and the Arizona coach wants his team to take another step forward.
“It’s a grind-out 56-game schedule so you just hope you’re gradually improving day by day,” Lopez said. “I see that this week.”
– – – – –