Fresh off consecutive NCAA Regional appearances, the No. 5-ranked Arizona baseball team has bigger goals in mind in 2012.
Feb. 10, 2012
2012 Arizona Baseball Season Outlook
Excitement, urgency and optimism surround the Wildcats as they are set to call Hi Corbett Field the new home of Arizona Baseball in 2012. The prospects of practicing and playing in a Major League-caliber facility basis and potentially hosting playoffs games for the first time in two decades will create some new and exciting feelings.
Those feelings have trickled beyond the team and affected the local community as well. The buzz that the 2012 team has created in the community is perhaps unmatched in these parts since the late 1980s when the Wildcats were still basking in the glory of their third national championship in 1986.
While much about the program may look and feel different in a new home venue, much remains the same for 11th-year head coach Andy Lopez and his club. At a program like Arizona, and for a national championship coach, the goal every season is to get to Omaha for the College World Series and have an opportunity to compete for a national title.
Lopez has won more than 1,000 career games using simple coaching philosophies. His team rules are: (1) be one time; and (2) do things right. His demands for pitchers are to throw strikes, for fielders to play simple catch and throw and for batters to deliver timely hits.
Indeed, it is a highly simplified version of the sometimes complex game of baseball, but Lopez knows one shortcut: experience. He wants his team to play "old" fast. Veteran players that approach the game the same way - the right way - for practice and games quickly see that it can be a simple game when they are able to mentally slow down the game.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, they have some experienced players returning. Five of the UA's starting position players from last year's club return in addition to two starting pitchers. Overall, 18 players from last year's club will be back in 2012, joining 16 newcomers. It is a mix of experience and youthful talent that has Lopez and his staff feeling good entering the season.
Arizona will have a strong opportunity to open the season on the right foot. Of the 55 regular season games, 35 of them are at home, including 23 of the first 25 games at Hi Corbett Field. If the Wildcats can carry over their home field advantage from Kindall Field/Sancet Stadium - a place where they won 70 percent of their games in 44 seasons -they will be in a position to compete for the Pac-12 Championship.
The conference and the nation will have their eyes on the Wildcats as Baseball America has tabbed UA as the No. 5 team in the country in its preseason poll. The Wildcats will have plenty of chances prove themselves against other highly acclaimed clubs, including on the road at No. 6 Rice and No. 23 Oregon State, and home showdowns against No. 2 Stanford, No. 14 UCLA and No. 17 Arizona State (two games also in Tempe).
Before one looks ahead too far, however, the Wildcats have plenty to learn about themselves. There are positions to fill in the starting rotation, in the bullpen, at catcher and in the infield. For Lopez, the new faces at those positions will have plenty of opportunities to snag a key role on the team.
The one sure thing is that it all begins to take shape when the lights are turned on at Hi Corbett Field on Feb. 17. See you at the ballpark.
Lopez and pitching coach Shaun Cole have sorted out the top two starting rotations in preseason practices. Two-time All-Pac-10 pitcher Kurt Heyer and sophomore Konner Wade give the Wildcats a one-two punch that will stack up with the best staff's in the conference.
"Kurt has all the experience you would want in a Friday starter," Lopez said. "He's pitched in a lot of big games whether it be in the conference, on the road and in the postseason."
"Konner does not have quite as much experience, but he was very solid for us in the second half of last season and had a great performance in the regional," Lopez added. "I feel very good with him on Saturday's. I think we match up very well with most anyone on Friday's and Saturday's."
The two biggest question marks for the staff are identifying a No. 3 starter and a closer. While easier said than done, Lopez and Cole have some options. Sophomore James Farris only appeared in two games in 2011, but showed great improvement and consistency in the fall. Junior Tyler Hale started 11 games in the No. 3 role last season and is again competing for a starting spot. Freshmen Mathew Troupe and Lucas Long, and junior left-hander Vincent Littleman are also in the mix.
Of those five players, the four that are left out of the initial starting rotation will quickly find roles in mid-week starts and long relief outings. Expect the competition to carry on during the season until someone fully claims that No. 3 spot on weekends.
"Ideally, I would like Farris or Hale to win that Sunday start," Lopez said. "I like Littleman out of the bullpen as a match-up guy and a long-relief guy because he can come in from the left side. And we would like to give Troupe and Long some time to get their feet wet and see what they can do."
The closer role may be Lopez's biggest priority. He typically builds his bullpen starting from the back end of games, putting a premium on securing the critical three finals outs of a game. The leader entering the season is junior Nick Cunningham, who has experience in the closer role dating back to his freshman season. He will have an opportunity this year to earn the full-time job.
"I want to see Nick close," Lopez said. "I think he feels more comfortable in the role this season. I think he wants to be that guy in the ninth inning or with an out or two left in the eighth inning and we have a lead."
Arizona also has a pair of hurlers in Augey Bill and Stephen Manthei. The two pitched as freshmen in 2010, but did not throw a year ago.
"Augey is really hard to hit and he has a long, lanky curve ball," Lopez said. "His biggest `X'-factor is to be able to consistently repeat his release point and that leads to more strikes. The same goes for Stephen; he has enough experience in our program to build off and be a factor for us."
Several other pitchers will challenge for match-up spots out of the bullpen, including returnees Jacob Doyle and Michael Lopez, along with newcomers Xavier Borde, Ismael Castro and Tyler Crawford.
The Wildcats must replace starter Jett Bandy and long-time backup Jacob Meskin. It will be a tough task considering the five catchers on the roster are all freshmen.
Arizona looked to be in good shape in the fall when David Schuknecht and Riley Moore enrolled in school despite being drafted last summer. The luxury of having two left-hand hitting catchers who could provide each other with ample rest was something the Wildcats have lacked in recent years.
Both were impressive in the fall season, but Schuknect suffered a labrum injury that required surgery and will be out for the year. Thus, Moore will be forced into near full-time duty as a true freshman.
"Riley is a good guy, a great player, and has a great ceiling," Lopez said. "I think he's going to be a really good player when it is all said and done. But I was looking forward to having a chance to play both he and David and let that competition play out."
Behind Moore is Jordan Berger, another left-hand hitting freshman. The Wildcats also have freshmen Sean Yanuss and Anthony de Jesus to provide depth.
Arizona is set on the left side of the infield. Two-year starters Alex Mejia and Seth Mejias-Breanreturn at shortstop and third base, respectively, and give the Wildcats one of the best defensive tandems on the left side in the league.
"I think Alex is taking on even more of a leadership role than he has in the past," said Lopez. "He has such a desire to play in Omaha and I think he understands that this may be his last year to go get there because I think he will get a chance to play pro ball after this season."
"Seth is stronger and healthier this season," Lopez said of the junior who battled a wrist injury much of last spring. "He's more powerful offensively and I think going to be more consistent for his. His defense was really strong, especially late in the year, but now he'll be a more complete player."
On the right side of the infield, the Wildcats will start sophomore Brandon Dixon at first base and likely will start freshman Trent Gilbert at second base, who is competing with sophomore David Lopez. Dixon provides the lineup with a powerful right-handed bat, while Gilbert and Lopez each hit from the left side.
"Brandon has done a great job at first base," Lopez said. "I like the fact that we have four shortstops in the infield. Alex, Seth, Brandon and Trent all came into our program as shortstops. That's always comforting because those guys usually play catch on a consistent basis."
"Trent is a freshman, so we'll get to see if he can adjust to the college game right away," Lopez said of the second baseman. "Both he and David will push each either, which is good. They both have a really good relationship, but at the same time understand that competition is healthy."
Dixon figures to be the backup at third base behind Mejias-Brean. Gilbert could slide over to shortstop in a pinch, and the Wildcats likely would utilize either junior Robert Refsnyder or freshman Joseph Maggi - both outfielders - at first base. Senior outfielder/designated hitter Bobby Brown also has some limited experience at first base. Freshman Tyler Parmenter is another left-side of the infield player that gives affords some flexibility.
Arizona returns all three starting outfielders in Refsnyder, Joey Rickard and Johnny Field. Add in the left hand-hitting Brown who can play a corner position or fill in as the designated hitter, and the Wildcats are as experienced and talented as any outfield you will find.
"I'm very comfortable with the outfield," Lopez said. "All of them are back, all of them are good players, all of them are clutch players and all of them hit in crucial spots in the lineup and do a very good job."
Defense will be a priority for the group, which is used to playing in the spacious Kindall Field/Sancet Stadium that featured deep right and left field corners (360-feet). Now at Hi Corbett Field, the field stretches even more, with massive power alleys that span 410-feet to left center and 405-feet to right center.
"Coming from a big ballpark, I don't think it will be a major adjustment for us," Lopez said of the spacious outfield. "If we played in a small park before, then maybe it would be different, but it's not. I especially don't think it be an issue considering our experience and how good our guys are defensively."
Freshmen Maggi, a left-handed bat, and Collin Dewell, a right-handed hitter, will provide the Wildcats with depth in the outfield. Classmates Ethan Springston and Luke Sutton will also compete.
"Joe and Collin could help in a pinch if we need to move some people around," Lopez said. "Joe has a lot of baseball instinct and is a nice action guy to have offensively with the way he sprays the ball around and can steal some bases. Collin has very good power and has a chance to be a real good player for us."
Arizona baseball season tickets, individual game tickets and mini-plans are on sale through the McKale Ticket Office and online. Seats in reserved seating locations are still available for purchase, but are selling quickly.
Be sure to keep up to date with the Wildcats as their preparations continue for the season opener. Follow Arizona Baseball on the team's official Facebook and Twitter (@ArizonaBaseball) pages. Also, follow head coach Andy Lopez (@CoachAndyLopez) on Twitter, too.