March 18, 2012
By Derrick Fazendin-
The wind up and the pitch, and there it was, a soft pop up to then-Wildcat second baseman Kyle Stiner for the third out in the ninth inning of the last game of the season. Arizona had just clinched a 5-2 victory over the Oregon Ducks, Jason Stoffel had just collected his team-leading 11th save of the season, and the Wildcats had just ended the 2009 season on a three-game winning streak. But the mood didn't reflect any of that. In fact there was no chatter, there were no smiles, there was no celebration. That Sunday afternoon would be the last time that Arizona team would walk off the field together.
"We were at the airport in Mesa on our way back home from Oregon and there were all kinds of rumors swirling around saying we would have a chance to make the postseason and all that, but I finally had to get up and say, 'You guys stop it, just stop it,'" said Arizona head coach Andy Lopez.
"I told them, `Hey guys, I'll be really honest with you. The way you guys have gone about things this year from study hall, to class attendance, to your effort in practice has just been embarrassing. If we do get in (the postseason) I'll be sick to my stomach.'"
Lopez happened to be right. The team finished 30-25 that year and missed the postseason for the first time in two years, and for only the third time in the Lopez era. It was almost hard to believe that just a year earlier many of these same guys were playing in a Super Regional in Coral Gables, Fla., falling literally just one game shy of reaching the College World Series for the 16th time in school history.
"It really was just a big waste of a year," said Lopez. "I know it sounds harsh, but really it's just a shame because that team had all the talent in the world, but the character wasn't there. Not everyone on the team had problems, but too many of them did. It was time to get a new group of guys."
The 2009 MLB Draft came and went with six Arizona Wildcats being selected. People may not have realized it then, but a new era of Arizona baseball was about to be born.
Opening night of the 2010 season finally arrived and the Wildcats had 16 freshmen on the roster, with six of them receiving playing time in the opener against Utah Valley. One of those freshmen was starting pitcher Kurt Heyer. He went seven innings, allowed just one run on three hits and fanned 13 batters in his first-ever collegiate start en route to Arizona's 8-1 opening night victory.
"I honestly didn't even know I was going to start that night," said Heyer. "My pitching coach came to me like two days before and told me I was starting.
"I didn't really know how to take it. I honestly didn't think a freshman would ever get that chance."
It was only win number one for Heyer, but the victory also happened to be the program's 2,500th all-time win. But the win signified the beginning of something even more special than that.
Freshmen Robert Refsnyder, Joey Rickard, Alex Mejia, and Seth Mejias-Brean combined to go 5 for 11 from the plate, scoring three runs, driving in three, and stealing two bags. Not a bad first game for four freshmen batting in the bottom of the order. In fact, this was the beginning of something big. Very big.
"You know, that was a pretty special night," said Refsnyder, now a junior. "And how fitting for us to get win number 2,500 in our first ever collegiate game - I mean talk about pressure. None of us really knew each other coming into college, but I don't think it mattered. We all just had one goal. It was to win games. A lot of games."
And win games they did. The Wildcats went on to sweep their opening series with Utah Valley, but it didn't stop there. Arizona proceeded to go on a 15-game win streak, which saw the Wildcats crack the top-25 in all four major college baseball polls for the first time in over a year. The streak also ranked as the sixth longest in school history and was just one win shy of the longest during Lopez's tenure as head coach.
"We were kind of just rolling along," said junior shortstop Mejia. "It was just one of those things where everyone just believed in each other, it didn't matter that we were freshman. We all just wanted to win and we believed we could."
However, it wasn't all easy for the Cats, as by the end of the regular season Arizona had dropped seven of its last 10 contests. This gave the Cats an overall record of 33-22 heading into Selection Monday, just three wins more than the team had at the end of the previous season.
"I'll be honest, I really didn't know (whether or not we would get in)," said Lopez. "I wanted it so bad for these guys because I felt like they had earned it. They were young and just ran out of gas at the end there."
Lopez had reason to worry, as Arizona's 12-15 conference mark and seventh place conference finish was actually worse than it was the previous season. But while the team's final marks were all too similar to the last year, the team's make up wasn't, and neither was Arizona's postseason fate.
The Wildcats were selected as one of the last four teams into the field of 64, with the selection committee making them a No. 3 seed in the Fort Worth Regional in Texas.
"I mean obviously there was excitement, but it was more just a relief than anything else," said junior outfielder Rickard. "We know we didn't finish strong, but we got in and we were given a second chance."
The Wildcats went into the postseason knowing they would be an underdog against pretty much whomever they faced, but that was nothing new, and quite frankly didn't matter. They were in, and they were going to give it their best shot, just like they'd done all season long.
The strategy worked.
Just as they had done time and time again, the fab five led the Wildcats to dramatic 10-9 win over Baylor in the regional opener. Mejia, Mejias-Brean, Refsnyder, and Rickard drove in six of Arizona's 10 runs, while Heyer surrendered only two earned runs while earning his first postseason win.
Unfortunately it was the last win the Wildcats would get in 2010, as they dropped the next two contests, eliminating them from the postseason.
"Of course looking back on it, the result was disappointing at the time, but just getting in and getting that win was huge," said Rickard. "We knew we'd be back."
And back they were in 2011, this time as a No. 2 seed, finishing the regular season with a 36-19 record. After seeing what the Cats were able to do a year ago in this same spot, many picked Arizona as a sleeper to make it out of the College Station Regional and even challenge for a spot in the College World Series. But things didn't go as planned. Not even close.
An offense that ranked as the third best overall offense in the country coming into postseason play was completely shutdown by Seton Hall in the regional opener. Mejia, Mejias-Brean, Rickard, and Refsnyder combined to go two for 12 at the plate, while Heyer was lit up for three runs on seven hits, while only striking out one. The Wildcats lost 4-0, and Arizona's fab five looked the furthest thing from fabulous, as the club was now just one loss away from elimination for the second straight year.
"I'm not going to say we panicked, but it was definitely one of those things where you go, 'Wow, we really have to get it going now,'" said Rickard.
With their backs against the wall, the Wildcats were now forced to win three games in a row to force a winner take all game against host Texas A&M.
Arizona responded to the challenge as the team went on to win two straight elimination games to eventually set up a showdown with the host, No. 1-seeded Texas A&M Aggies.
As if the situation weren't dramatic enough for the Cats, a thunderstorm delayed the contest for more than 24 hours. When the game finally did get under way, the news only got worse for Arizona, as starting pitcher Tyler Hale was knocked out of the game after taking a line drive off his pitching elbow. Nick Cunningham was forced to come in in an emergency relief role and held his own, but Arizona still trailed 2-1 as it headed to the sixth.
Then it was time.
Refsnyder, as he had done all year long, set the table, as he smacked a lead-off double into the left field corner. Two batters latter, catcher Jett Bandy brought him in with a double of his own to lock the game up at two. But then it was Mejia and Mejias-Brean coming through with back-to-back RBIs in front of a hostile crowd of nearly 5,000 to give Arizona a 4-2 lead, a lead it would never relinquish. The Wildcats went on to beat the Aggies 7-4 to force the second championship game.
"It really felt like one of those dramatic sports movies with that crowd and everything," Mejia said. "It was one of the most unreal and satisfying experiences I think I have ever had."
The Wildcats went on to lose the next game 3-0, but now enter the 2012 season as one of the teams to beat in the Pac-12.
"Playing with those guys in that (College Station) regional has to be the favorite moment of my career at Arizona," said former UA catcher Jett Bandy. "Everyone was all in, and I mean everyone. All we wanted to do was win."
Arizona is primed to do big things this season as the team moves into its new home at newly renovated Hi Corbett Field. It also returns a boatload of talent, but maybe even more importantly, welcomes back a group of guys who just flat out love being around each other.
"It's so easy," said Refsnyder. "It's so easy to play with these guys. I seriously look to my right in centerfield and I see my best friend in Joey (Rickard). This isn't even really a team; it's more of a family. It's pretty special."
Mejia, Mejias-Brean, Rickard, Refsnyder, and Heyer have combined to receive numerous individual awards and as a unit, have played in over 500 career games so far at Arizona. But the number "one" sketched out on the clubhouse whiteboard is really the only number that means anything. If that doesn't make sense, then try reading the sign on the clubhouse exit door. That probably will.
"One team, one goal...Get to Omaha."