Eight months have passed, and the Wildcats have not forgotten. In fact, the taste is as bitter as it was on Memorial Day last May.
Fresh off a national championship in 2012, Arizona’s bid to defend its title abruptly ended when it was left out of the NCAA Tournament Field of 64. It snapped a run of three-consecutive postseason appearances.
The Wildcats played their best baseball down the stretch en route to winning 34 ballgames in the regular season – just four fewer than it had in the previous championship campaign – and finished .500 in one of the toughest conferences in the nation. Yet the Pac-12, which produced the national champion for the fourth time in eight seasons and sent two schools to Omaha, was only rewarded with four teams in the postseason.
Arizona felt it was worthy to be the fifth; the selection committee did not.
The Wildcats are not asking for sympathy, though. Andy Lopez would never let that happen in his program. But do not be surprised if his club plays with a heavy chip on its shoulder this season.
“That is absolutely motivation,” Lopez said of the postseason snub. “I am still very upset about that. I thought it was an injustice not only to us, but to the entire conference. We only had four teams qualify, which just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. That’s something we talk about a lot.”
Lopez is hungrier than ever to lead his program after battling through his own adversity in the offseason. Last October, the 32-year college coaching veteran underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery which forced him to miss much of the fall practice season. He returned at full strength this January.
“I missed it more than I realized,” Lopez said of his absence. “It’s good to be back. I probably took a lot of this for granted after doing it for 37 years, including the high school level. My standards won’t change, though, from a baseball standpoint. The goals of our program remain the same. We all want to get back to Omaha.”
The Wildcats have a good starting point. Nine players remain from the team that captured the school’s fourth national title. There are 19 returnees from last year’s roster and a handful of potential difference-makers in a group of 15 newcomers.
Perhaps the biggest offseason development for Arizona was the return of right-handed pitcher James Farris, a 15th-round draft choice of the Houston Astros last June. The senior turned down the professional overtures and now figures to be the ace of the staff.
Farris will be joined by juniors Tyler Crawford and Mathew Troupe as leaders of a pitching staff that expects significant improvement. The trio of upperclassmen all have experience on the mound in Omaha and in each venue in the conference.
The Wildcats also figure to have a talented offensive lineup led by three proven left-handed bats. Catcher Riley Moore, second baseman Trent Gilbert and outfielder Joseph Maggi – all juniors – started two years ago on the College World Series team. All-Pac-12 shortstop Kevin Newman is emerging as a leader in his sophomore season, and classmates Scott Kingery and Zach Gibbons give Arizona’s lineup speed in the outfield.
Ultimately, the Wildcats’ success will be contingent upon living up to a simple standard in Lopez’s program: play good baseball. That means throwing strikes on the mound, playing sound catch in the field and, of course, developing timely hitting.
For Lopez and the Wildcats, the motivation to do so has never been greater.
Arizona’s pitching last season was far too inconsistent for Andy Lopez’s standards, but improved depth and experience should provide ample opportunity for improvement in 2014. The return of James Farris (5-5, 4.18 ERA, 73 SO, 99.0 IP), a veteran right-hander with 32 career starts, bolsters a weekend rotation that will include lefty Tyler Crawford (7-2, 3.83 ERA, 46 SO, 80.0 IP) and potentially righty Mathew Troupe (6-0, 9 SV, 3.29 ERA, 49 SO, 38.1 IP), the club’s closer the last two seasons.
Farris is a gritty pitcher that Arizona will ask to set the tone of Fridays with his attacking mentality. Crawford is a crafty lefty that keeps hitters off-balance and is a perfect fit for Saturday or Sundays, which he thrived in a season ago. Troupe is a hard-thrower with a mix of off-speed pitches that could snag a weekend rotation spot as he eases back from a setback in the fall.
“James is as seasoned of a pitcher as you can have at this point,” Lopez said. “He’s a senior. He’s pitched for a conference championship team and he’s won a national a championship. We need him to be a leader of the pitching staff and set that tone each weekend.
“Crawford is very consistent and proved himself on Sundays last season,” Lopez added. “We need the weekend arms to throw strikes, and that is a strength of Farris and Crawford. If we get to use Troupe on the weekend, I think it will suit him well. He was a very good starter in high school. But if not, we’ll use him late in games like we have the last two years.”
Sophomores Tyger Talley (4-0, 3.82 ERA, 32 SO, 33.0 IP) and Cody Moffett (2-2, 3.13 ERA, 26 SO, 37.1 IP) each were significant contributors a season ago and figure to see their roles increase. Talley served mainly as a setup guy as a rookie and will likely assume the closer role if Troupe sees increased innings elsewhere. Moffett will challenge for a spot at the end of the weekend rotation or in midweek spot-starts, while filling a key role as a left-handed arm out of the bullpen.
A couple of intriguing third-year pitchers include Xavier Borde and Tyler Parmenter. Borde, a lefty, has only two career appearances, but has shown improved command. Parmenter has found a home as pitcher after playing infield, outfield and designated hitter his first two seasons. The righty has arguably the best fastball on the team and is developing his secondary pitches.
Nathan Bannister had a strong summer in the Alaska League and has a chance to earn more innings after making three appearances as a true freshman last spring.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise is the addition of junior college transfer Cody Hamlin, a 6-foot-3 right-hander that pounds the strike zone. He will contend for weekend and spots starts, especially if Troupe is not full-strength to begin the season.
“He is throwing strikes,” Lopez said of Hamlin. “It sounds simple, but it’s something that has separated him a little bit. If he can do that throughout the season, he will be a key part of our staff.”
Contributions will be needed from the freshman class, which includes righties Morgan Earman, Austin Schnabel, Luke Soroko and Jacob McAdams, and left-hander Evan Hebert. Bobby Dalbec, a righty, is a corner infielder and potential power bat in the lineup, but also is a hard-thrower that may get a chance to toe the rubber late in ballgames.
“We are going to need a few of the freshmen arms to step up,” Lopez said. “Schnable has the potential to pitch some innings, including midweek starts. Soroko doesn’t have power stuff, but he can get guys out. Dalbec has tremendous presence on the mound and I can see him coming in for three to six outs late in games. We have some options. They all have potential or they wouldn’t be here with us.”
Arizona has plenty of options behind the plate, though junior Riley Moore (.285, 2 HR, 37 RBI) is the incumbent starter from the last two seasons. Moore is a patient left-handed hitter who has impressive physical tools. He missed much of the fall due to injury, but was fully cleared in January and expects a big season.
Junior Jordan Berger (.311, 4 R, 4 RBI) offers another left-handed bat at the position and could factor into the designated hitter slot in the lineup. Sophomore David Real (.136, 3 R, 1 RBI) is a right-handed bat with steady defensive skills. The two combined for 16 starts a season ago as either catchers or designated hitters.
A fourth option for the Wildcats is junior Nathan Zavos, a transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette.
“We have some options and experience,” Lopez said of the catchers. “We need more consistency and leadership out of the guys behind the plate. They are older and have been in the program a couple years now, and that should help us a lot.”
Arizona returns one of the top middle-infield tandems in the nation. Sophomore shortstop Kevin Newman (.336, 40 R, 42 RBI, 11 SB) followed up his freshman All-American season by becoming the first freshman ever to win the Cape Cod League batting crown last summer. Along with his bat, Newman is a rock-solid defender and a threat to steal bases as well. At second base, Trent Gilbert (.344, 13 2B, 45 R, 49 RBI) returns for his third season as the starter, a consistent left-handed hitter with added pop in his bat.
“We have a lot of experience up the middle,” Lopez said. “Newman had a marvelous freshman season and he’s developed more as a sophomore. We are going to need him to embrace the leadership role that comes with being a shortstop, and he is showing that he can do that. Gilbert has been a consistent bat for us and is a steady defensive player. They play well together up the middle.”
The Wildcats have improved depth in the infield, too. Freshman Willie Calhoun is a strong left-handed hitter that can play second or third base, while fellow freshman Casey Bowman is a sure-handed player. Sophomore Cody Ramer (.13, 7 R, 8 RBI) played in 23 games a year ago and can play either position on the left side of the infield, as well as a corner outfield spot.
On the corners in the infield, a pair of freshman could earn starting nods. Bobby Dalbec is a physically impressive candidate for third base with a strong arm and a big bat, but he could play first base if needed. Michael Hoard is a left-handed hitter that will contend for the first base job along with senior Sam Eco-Parris (.171, 5 R, 5 RBI), who was a 13-game starter last season.
“Dalbec gives us a power bat, something we haven’t had recently,” Lopez said. “He’s a talented player that can play third or first base, and he’s going to get a chance on the mound, too.
“Calhoun is legitimate offensive player already as a freshman,” Lopez added. “He and Hoard will give us two more left-handed bats. And Parris is an older guy that hits from the right side, so we have solid options both offensively and defensively. That will come into play if we put Dalbec on the mound late in a game.”
The Wildcats always have the option of utilizing junior Joseph Maggi (.320, 31 R, 27 RBI), a natural outfielder whose bat and improved glove have seen him become the starting first baseman in each of the last two seasons. The plan is to start Maggi in the outfield, though.
Perhaps no positions are more improved from last February than the outfield spots. In an ideal world, Joseph Maggi (.320, 31 R, 27 RBI), will finally be a full-time outfielder. A lefty, Maggi is a scrappy player with the knack for playing his best against the best. He’s also a vocal player on the field, something that suits him well for a potential nod in centerfield, if not in right field.
Sophomore Scott Kingery (.261, 22 R, 18 RBI, 8 SB) is a speedy player that can play any of the three positions. Kingery earned 30 starts last season at the corner positions. Fellow sophomore Zach Gibbons (.320, 33 R, 28 RBI, 11 SB) started 49 games a season ago and is an athletic player than can play either corner position. Both are perfect top or bottom of the order bats with the ability to pressure teams on the bases.
“It’s a solid group,” Lopez said. “All three of those guys played significant roles for us last year. We need them to be more consistent, and I think they will be. They each should be improved offensively and defensively.”
Freshmen Kenny Meimerstorf is a talented athlete from Bishop Gorman High School, where he was the Gatorade baseball player of the year last season. Jared Oliva and Nick Kanavas will contend for playing time. So, too, will Tyler Krause, a transfer from Paradise Community College.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Meimerstorf finds his way into the lineup this year,” Lopez said. “He has great physical tools and I think has a great future here.”
With older, deeper team, Arizona will take on a challenging schedule that includes a 55-game regular season slate highlighted by 38 home games at Hi Corbett Field and 17 away contests. The Wildcats will have an unprecedented 19 television appearances, with 17 airing on the Pac-12 Networks and two broadcasts on ESPNU.
“We have a great home schedule this season,” head coach Andy Lopez said. “Our fans have done a marvelous job supporting us at Hi Corbett these last couple of years, and I think they are going to see some of the best baseball in the nation this season. There are some tremendous coaches, players and championship-caliber programs coming to Tucson.”
Arizona’s home schedule is highlighted by some of the premier collegiate programs. The season kicks off against 2012 College World Series participant Kent State for a three-game series Feb. 14-16. Other non-conference home series are scheduled against Utah Valley (Feb. 18-19), Alcorn State (Feb. 21-23), Seton Hall (Feb. 28-March 2), Long Beach State (March 4-5) and Air Force (March 11-12).
The Wildcats will host a the Hi Corbett Classic against 2013 College World Series runner-up Mississippi State and 2013 NCAA Tournament participant UC Santa Barbara March 7-9. Hi Corbett Field will host a double-header each day with the schools each playing four games over the weekend.
The non-conference home schedule also includes a tilt with in-state foe Grand Canyon (March 18), which will compete at the Division I level this season in the Western Athletic Conference. The Wildcats will travel to Arizona State twice (March 26 and April 9) for non-conference games.
Then, of course, is the 30-game slate against the Pac-12 Conference, which has produced the last two national champions and four of the last eight. Conference action begins in earnest against Washington State in Tucson March 14-16. Other home conference series include 2013 College World Series participant Oregon State (March 28-30), defending national champion UCLA (April 11-13), rival Arizona State (April 25-27) and two-time national champ Stanford (May 9-11).
Arizona will travel to Washington (March 21-23), Utah (April 4-6), USC (April 17-19), Oregon (May 2-4) and California (May 16-18) for its five conference road trips.Due to the unbalanced 11-team league, the Wildcats open weekend during conference plays falls on the final weekend of the regular season. Arizona will host Abilene Christian, a new Division I member in the Southland Conference, for three games May 23-25.