The Arizona Wildcats baseball team took two of three from Abilene Christian over the weekend to bring to a close the worst season of Andy Lopez’s career.
The UA coach certainly isn’t happy about it.
“The season’s over and I start (next year) right now,” Lopez said after Sunday’s finale. “Starting fresh right now. Gotta fix it.”
The BatCats finished 22-33 overall, the program’s fewest wins since Jerry Kindall’s second-to-last season in 1995. A 9-21 conference record left Arizona in 10th place in the “Pac-11,” ahead of only Utah in the standings. The UA had never before finished worse than seventh in league play.
The Arizona pitching certainly wasn’t great this year but the 4.49 team ERA and .274 opponents’ batting average were comparable to 2013’s 4.41 and .266. Even the 2012 national championship team was only seventh in the Pac-12 in ERA.
The main problem was at the plate. After you got past the foursome of Scott Kingery, Zach Gibbons, Trent Gilbert and Kevin Newman the offensive production dropped off a cliff. An Arizona team playing at gap-friendly Hi Corbett Field shouldn’t be hitting .251 with a .323 on-base percentage in Pac-12 play.
The 2012 Cats hit .329 as a team. That average would have been the third best individual this year.
How do you fix it? The same way a coach improves a college team in any sport: Recruiting.
Lopez said, “I hope that we have a lot of competition for Friday and Saturday and Sunday (starting pitchers), and first and second and short…” He went on to list every position on the field. It was a clear message that nobody’s job is safe.
“We’ve got to recover quickly,” the Arizona coach said. “I want to recover with a couple junior college guys.” He said his “Christmas wish list” includes two JC pitchers and a third baseman in addition to the commitment from a JC center fielder last week.
That’s not to say Lopez has completely given up on his current roster. He singled out freshman Bobby Dalbec and junior Tyler Krause as hitters who have shown flashes of their potential this year. Among the freshman pitchers, Lopez believes Austin Schnabel, Morgan Earman and Evan Hebert have a chance be better in a more “normal environment” next season.
Lopez also said the pitching staff would receive a “shot in the arm” if Mathew Troupe and Tyler Crawford could return healthy in 2015.
Defensively, it’s assumed Gilbert will be going pro so the plan is to move Kingery to second base. You can pencil in Newman at shortstop and Gibbons somewhere in the outfield. After that? Put out an APB for guys who can take quality ABs.
The hope would be a couple of the young players who got at-bats this year end up following Brandon Dixon’s career arc. Dixon went from hitting .245 / .326 OBP / .323 SLG as a defensive replacement in 2012 to a monster .369 / .443 / .561 season last year. Can someone among the freshman class of Dalbec, Willie Calhoun, Kenny Meimerstorf and Michael Hoard make a similar leap?
Another crucial element is filling the leadership void that has existed since the heralded 2009 recruiting class left campus. It starts with the coaches but winning teams have upperclassmen who lead by example and hold their teammates accountable.
When asked if he had the leadership core needed for next year Lopez did not mince words: “We’ll have it. Even if it’s me. I’m serious. You can put that one in quotes… There will be leadership even if it’s me.”
It remains shocking that it took just two seasons for the program to go from the pinnacle of the sport to the lowest it’s been in two decades. Lopez built the championship team and now the responsibility falls on him to rebuild it. He accepts this but knows he has done it many times before.
“I’ve kind of built my whole career on fixing programs,” Lopez said. “I had to fix Dominguez (Hills), I had to fix Florida, I had to fix Pepperdine and I kind of had to fix this one too. So it’s not like I’m going into it saying, ‘Whoa, what do I do now?’”
The track record suggests the turnaround will happen. What remains to be seen is how long it will take.
“I don’t think it’s that far away,” Lopez said. “I really don’t.”
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