Taking two of three from a ranked opponent on the road sure looks great on a postseason resume. Yes, the season is long but this the exact time a team wants to be winning games if it hopes to host a regional.
And it’s the exact time Arizona has failed in recent years.
Wildcat coach Andy Lopez has proven that his teams can compete with anyone, anywhere in the NCAA tournament. Pushing Texas A&M to a winner-take-all game last year, taking Miami to the limit in 2008 and, of course, the College World Series run in 2004.
What all those examples have in common is they all happened on the road and that’s the problem. Lopez’s teams are always ready to go once postseason starts but the playoff paths have been made more difficult because of struggles during the regular season.
Last year’s team started 16-5 but could only manage a 4th-place finish in the Pac-10. The 2008 squad was a sterling 26-5 in non-conference games but barely 12-12 in league play. In 2005 the Cats finished 2nd in the Pac-10 but had 12 losses out of conference.
The one year the Cats did take care of business in the regular season was 2007. Forty wins and 2nd place in the Pac-10 should absolutely get you postseason home games. But that year ASU won the conference and the NCAA chose not to put two regionals in the state of Arizona.
There’s no tiptoeing around the Arizona State aspect. The Sun Devils are the model. Not the cheating-and-NCAA-tournament-ban part, but the playing-home-games-every-June part. ASU has hosted a regional in nine of the last 12 years and finished above the Wildcats in the conference standings in 11 of those 12 seasons.
That won’t be an issue this year and Arizona has a team good enough to take advantage.
It all adds up to why the timing of the move to Hi Corbett Field was so perfect. The UA hasn’t been asking people to come out and see a bunch of freshmen who are going to make a ton of errors and strike out all the time. This is a peak season that was three years in the making.
“We talk about working in three stages,” Lopez said earlier this year. “Survival stage into the improvement stage into the win stage.”
“The [Alex] Mejias and the [Robert] Refsnyders and the [Kurt] Heyers, they’re in the win stage. They’re showing up to win.”
When Baseball America did its 2012 preseason tournament projection it had the Cats doing enough winning to not just host a regional but to be in line to play a super regional in Tucson with a trip to Omaha on the line.
Andy Lopez wasn’t concerned with that prediction when I asked him about it. “I appreciate that,” he said, “but you have to play. Hopefully we’ll keep playing well.”
Now, what about those losses to New Mexico State? You don’t want to make a habit of getting swept but you don’t have to go back far to find a precedent for the selection committee heavily weighting the weekend series over the midweek games. Last year UCLA went just 6-6 in non-conference games once Pac-10 play started but the Bruins won the league and were rewarded as regional hosts.
It certainly won’t be easy. The pressure felt in the Washington State and Oregon State series will be present for the rest of the season but things are lined up for the Wildcats like never before.
A talented and experienced team. An attendance boost from changing ballparks. The rival that essentially enacted a postseason embargo being hit with economic sanctions.
There’s definitely a now-or-never feeling about Arizona Baseball when it comes to hosting a regional. That’s why the consecutive series wins to open conference play were so important.
That’s why a sense of urgency is needed now.
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