The 2012 Arizona Wildcats baseball team will be forever linked with greatness. Pac-12 champions. National champions. The team that brought baseball back to life in Tucson.
The fans will still wear the t-shirts and hats but the ’12 BatCats don’t live here anymore.
The new season got underway this past weekend with the latest edition of Arizona Baseball looking to establish its own identity.
Last year’s team wasn’t deep but the few guys that played were really, really good. The 2012 squad had an attacking lineup, exceptional defense and strong starting pitching. It was a formula that added up to the program’s first championship in a quarter century.
The current mix of veterans and rookies is starting over and we’re going to have to wait and see where they end up.
“That’s probably the most challenging, the most exciting and the scariest part from a coaching standpoint,” UA coach Andy Lopez said Friday night. “I believe there’s some good talent out here. There are some guys that know how to play the game. (But) I just talked about it in the clubhouse. ‘What’s going to be our identity?’”
A three-game sweep of Coppin State by a combined score of 43-10 is a great start but the level of competition left a lot to be desired.
If this team is going to have success, pitching is going to have to lead the way. The staff is not young. Starters Konner Wade and James Farris combined to win 18 games last year. Closer Mathew Troupe had six wins, six saves and was at the bottom of the dogpile after the final game of the College World Series. That’s a trio of hurlers who aren’t going to be intimidated by anything.
The mass exodus was in the UA batting order. Even with Pac-12 batting champ Johnny Field returning Arizona lost 78% of last year’s home runs and 65% of 2012’s extra base hits. “No Doubles” won’t completely go away as long as the Wildcats play at spacious Hi Corbett Field but it’s not reasonable to expect a repeat of last year’s output at the plate.
The defense is also a mystery as only two guys are back playing the same position as last year, catcher Riley Moore and second baseman Trent Gilbert. Freshman shortstop Kevin Newman’s glove work is highly regarded but Alex Mejia was good for at least one Wow! play every game. Seth Mejias-Brean was an absolute rock at third base and he is being replaced by Brandon Dixon who played first base last year.
That brings us back to the pitching and if you can only find superiority in one area, on the mound is where you want it.
The blueprint for success starts with K-Wade (6.1 innings, one hit on Friday) becoming the Omaha Wade all season and taking his game to a (Kurt) Heyer level. Farris (8 innings, one run on Saturday) needs to be better as the Saturday guy than Wade was last year. Troupe (four strikeouts and the save on Sunday) needs to develop into a dominant closer.
As for the Sunday starter and middle relief, Lopez has some experienced arms to choose from. Neither junior Stephen Manthei nor senior Tyler Hale had a strong debut in the series finale against Coppin State but seniors Nick Cunningham and Augey Bill performed well out of the bullpen over the weekend. Lopez said he hopes that group can have a season like Bobby Brown last year where they put it all together at the end of their college careers.
But the pitching stars need to be Wade, Farris and Troupe. If Arizona can have a 1-2 punch of elite starters and hand the ball to a lights-out closer, the Cats can make up for deficiencies in other areas.
As usual the Wildcats will be getting their midweek games out of the way early so there is a ton of baseball to be played in the first month of the season. Arizona next hits the road to face Long Beach State on Tuesday and Wednesday.
It seems odd to place any sort of significance on the first midweek series of the season but when you look at the schedule these are a couple of key games. LBSU is by far the best program on the non-conference slate and these are the only two road games the UA will play until the second week of Pac-12 action. We’ll see if we can get an early glimpse at the direction this team is headed.
The Cats should put up a big win total against this light out-of-conference schedule. The interesting part will be looking beneath the final scores and seeing how this bunch of guys comes together. What will they do well? Where will they struggle? What will be their ceiling when Pac-12 play rolls around?
“Three weeks from now,” Lopez said, “we’re going to sit around and say, ‘That’s their identity.’ Hopefully it’s a good one.”
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