The Arizona Wildcats baseball team is in the midst of a season of lows. There have been three different losing streaks of at least five games. The Cats sit just a couple games out of the Pac-12 cellar.
If things don’t change drastically over the final four weeks it will the worst season in Andy Lopez’s storied career.
The Wildcats lost two out of three to Arizona State at Hi Corbett Field over the weekend to give the Sun Devils the season series for the first time in three years. It continues a disappointing season that has the BatCats in 10th place in the Pac-12 (out of 11 teams) and a shocking 18-25 overall.
It’s shocking because Lopez has only had one losing season in his 25 years as a Division I head coach. No losing records in six seasons at Pepperdine, none in seven years at Florida and just one in his first dozen years at Arizona.
That one season was the 2006 campaign when the Cats posted a record of 27-28. But even that team closed on a five-game winning streak and finished with a .500 conference mark. The payoff was a return to the NCAA tournament the following season and a No. 1 ranking and trip to the Super Regionals in 2008.
Lopez’s teams aren’t supposed to get worse over consecutive seasons. The foundation of what will end up being a hall-of-fame career has been the amazing consistency of his three-year cycles. Rebuild, improve, peak and do it again.
The 2012 national championship was obviously a peak. Last season was a rebuilding year which should have made 2014 a “year away” team. Instead the year got away in a hurry.
Getting swept at home by Seton Hall the first weekend in March was an early red flag. The struggles continued as the UA started 2-7 in conference play. There were signs of life after winning the Utah and UCLA series with a non-conference victory against ASU in between but hope for a turnaround was crushed with a sweep at the hands of USC.
With 12 games left, even if the Cats won them all they’d still be just 30-25 overall and 16-14 in Pac-12 play. Last year neither Stanford (32-22 / 16-14) nor Arizona (34-21 / 15-15) got into the tournament with better profiles.
This will mark the first time Lopez misses the tournament two straight years at the same school in his career. The only previous time he was left off back to back brackets was 1994 and ’95, his final season at Pepperdine and first year at Florida. Since then Lopez has been coaching in June in 13 of 18 seasons.
If you’re looking for a silver lining, the only other time the three-year cycle was broken was after the 2009 season. Lopez cleaned house and re-rebuilt with the freshman class that would become champions.
But that national title two years ago is what makes these last couple of seasons so puzzling. Recruiting momentum is supposed to pick up after a championship. For example, after the Arizona basketball team won the 1997 NCAA tournament and went 30-5 the following season, Lute Olson was able to bring in the players that led to national championship contention in 2001, ’03 and ’05.
That may explain the UA’s slow start but why haven’t the Wildcats improved as the year has gone on? There are questions that will linger after the season is done.
Is there enough talent left in the program to bounce back next year? Is there enough leadership on the roster to make sure that happens? Which freshmen and sophomores can this team build around?
Hopefully the final 12 games will provide some clues.
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