The 2015 college baseball season began in Tucson with the Arizona Wildcats sweeping three games against Eastern Michigan.
It was a good start to what feels like a key season, a season that will tell us if Arizona Baseball will soon return to its traditional status as an NCAA tournament regular.
When you look at the calendar the 2012 national championship wasn’t that long ago. Mathew Troupe and Riley Moore were batterymates for the final out and both are still on the team. The “Wildcats Own Omaha” t-shirts still fit.
But after last season, the worst of UA coach Andy Lopez’s career, the title run of three years ago is hard to pick up in the rearview mirror. The program has slid in the wrong direction, setting up 2015 as a crossroads.
Lopez has been coaching too long to get caught up in “big picture” speculation but he understands the expectations at the UA.
“I’ve never really looked beyond what is here right now,” Lopez said. “Me personally, I’m motivated by what happened last year so I don’t ever let it slip from my mind. But I say it all the time: It’s the University of Arizona; we should be good. And if we’re not then it’s my fault and we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Lopez is a big reason for those expectations. He led the Wildcats to eight NCAA tournament appearances in his first 11 years in Tucson and never missed the postseason in consecutive years until the last two seasons.
Making the tournament isn’t expected this season and it isn’t necessary. I am not in any way saying this is a do-or-die year in terms of wins and losses for Lopez and his program. What is necessary, however, is improvement and a return to the fundamentally sound yet aggressive brand of baseball for which Arizona has been known.
“The whole fall, the whole January, everything building up to the start of the season has been me trying to instill the intangibles that I’ve always felt my programs have had,” Lopez said.
If after 55 games this roster doesn’t show signs of those intangibles and the talent needed to develop into a great team in a year or two, it’s hard to imagine the program getting all the way back and the aforementioned bridge may arrive sooner than anticipated.
With that in mind it was good seeing so many young players starting during opening weekend. Friday and Saturday’s pitchers, sophomore Austin Schnabel and redshirt freshman Robby Medel, are players who aren’t eligible to turn pro until after next season. Success this year would mean a solid foundation for the 2016 pitching staff.
Juniors Scott Kingery and Kevin Newman will be the offensive stars this year but the future belongs to players like sophomore Bobby Dalbec and freshmen Jared Oliva and J.J. Matijevic. If the young bats find the Hi Corbett gaps early and often it bodes well for Arizona getting back to its position near the top of the Pac-12 in batting average and on-base percentage.
The problem with last year’s lineup was it was top-heavy. The four hitters at the top of the order excelled while the bottom half of the lineup floundered. If that lack of production is repeated the team’s record will probably be similar to 2014 and, since the lower part of the order is filled with newcomers, the prospects for the following season won’t be much brighter.
It won’t take long to see what this squad can do as the Wildcats play 19 games in 24 days to open the season. This upcoming weekend the UA hosts Rice, a program that has made the NCAA tournament 20 consecutive years. The following week is a trip to Starkville that includes a couple games against a Mississippi State team that was in the College World Series final two seasons ago.
By the end of this month we should have a pretty good indication of the potential of this year’s team. If at that point the new starting pitchers are holding up and the young hitters are making strides it will be safe to believe things are getting back to normal for Arizona Baseball.
The Wildcat coach accepts full responsibility for last season and has accepted the challenge to correct it.
“I’ve been on a mission since I showed up in August,” Lopez said. “We’ve got a job to do. That’s it. Period. We’ve got a job to do.”
– – – – –