Life is full of patterns, like the tides or the seasons.
It works in college baseball too. The Arizona Wildcats win the national championship once every other College World Series appearance. Every time the UA hosts a regional, Andy Lopez wins the championship.
And once every three years Lopez’s Wildcats rebuild.
The 2013 BatCats finished the season by sweeping USC, winning their final four games and five of their last six but it ended up not being enough to make the NCAA tournament. Arizona’s title defense ended in the selection committee’s conference room and not on a baseball diamond.
It’s disappointing but we should have seen this coming. Putting on those crystal-clear hindsight glasses, the expectations were probably too high coming into the season. If you were to go back to exactly one year ago, right after the 2012 regular season, and you would have tried to predict what happens to the ’13 Cats, you would have projected a huge dropoff. Too many talented upperclassmen about to leave the program all at once. You would have prepared for a season worse than what actually happened.
Before last year’s tournament run, Brandon Dixon would have been viewed as just a defensive replacement. Take away the 2012 College World Series and Konner Wade and James Farris are guys with ERAs above four, Trent Gilbert is a .270 hitter and Riley Moore has 24 passed balls. You would certainly project improvement from all of them but it would have seemed wise to take a wait-and-see approach on 2013.
But during that magical June, Wade was untouchable, Farris was stout and both Gilbert and Dixon had game-winning hits. The team as a whole was greater than the sum of its parts but, man, there were some really impressive parts. Now we know it wasn’t fair to expect every player to maintain that extreme level of performance over the course of an entire season.
When the dust and confetti settled in Omaha last year, the bar had been raised quite a bit for the players who would return in 2013. A little too high, it turns out.
After the season finale on Sunday Lopez focused on the struggles of his pitchers during the middle portion of the season.
“I really came into the season saying our strength was going to be we’ve got some older arms,” Lopez said. “It just didn’t happen.”
The Arizona coach added, “I take full responsibility for that. Somewhere along the line I did a poor job of getting those arms ready for that stretch of the season.”
This season has not ended how a Wildcat would have penned it (that rhymes) but for whom should we feel bad? Every player leaving the program now has one more national championship ring than all active members of the rest of the Pac-12 combined. And this year’s freshmen got valuable experience (with both failure and success) and now have two more seasons to make their mark on the program.
That’s been the three-year cycle under Lopez: struggle as freshmen, improve as sophomores, peak as juniors.
“We get young every three years,” Lopez said on Sunday. “We clean a junior class out and then we get young. That’s what we are right now.”
The UA freshmen in 2003 got swept in a regional. As juniors they finished second in the Pac-10 with a 17-7 record.
In 2006 the freshman class experienced a losing record and missed the NCAA tournament. Two years later they started the season ranked No. 1 and took Miami to the wire in a Super Regional.
The one exception to the pattern was 2009 when Lopez had to hit the reset button after a “waste of a year.” That waste ended up being best thing that could have happened to the program as it forced the Arizona coach to turn the team over to the 2010 freshmen who would begin the cycle again and peak as champions.
Lopez sees a similarly bright future for his current crop of rookies.
“I’m excited about this club for the next couple years,” Lopez said. “Really excited about that. These freshmen have done some great things these last two weekends in tough situations.”
So the UA’s rebuilding season is complete. There are a lot of teams who would gladly take a .618 winning percentage and season series victory over their chief rival in a dream season, let alone a rebuilding one, but the standards are higher for Arizona Baseball. The goals are bigger and the peaks are supposed to be greater.
If the past is any indicator of the future, Arizona’s next great peak is just two years away.
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