The Arizona Wildcats enter the 2013 campaign still basking in the glory of their fourth national championship captured last June at the College World Series. Indeed, the masterful undefeated run through the postseason, which included NCAA Regional and Super Regional games in Tucson for the first time since 1992, firmly put the program back amongst the nation's elite. In the process, the Wildcats earned unprecedented support from their fan base as Arizona led the West Coast in attendance with more than 105,000 turning out to Hi Corbett Field a year ago.
Suffice it to say, excitement for Arizona baseball is palpable, optimism is plentiful and expectations are, well, as high as ever. To some, that may add undue pressure to a team that must replace its three-year Friday night ace on the mound and five key contributors from an offensive lineup that led the nation in hits. Not at Arizona.
The expectation in Tucson is always to get to Omaha. It is a place the Wildcats have been 16 times - tied for sixth-most trips by any program - and a destination head coach Andy Lopez is quite familiar with. The 2012 National Coach of the Year has led teams to the College World Series five times and he is one of just three coaches to guide three different schools to college baseball's promised land. With last year's title, he became only the second coach in NCAA history to coach two school's to a national championship.
In short, Lopez knows what it takes to get to Omaha, so do not expect his club to feel any unnecessary pressure. In fact, Lopez often asks his players about the stresses of the game with a simple question: "Is it pressure or pleasure?"
This season, the pleasure is returning the reigning Pac-12 batting champion, Johnny Field, a fierce competitor suited to assume a leadership void with the departure of veterans like Alex Mejia and Robert Refsnyder. Also pleasing to Wildcat fans will be the return of College World Series hero Konner Wade, whose back-to-back complete game victories in Omaha have him poised for a big year as he steps into the Friday night role after Kurt Heyer assumed the job for three seasons. Wade will be joined by fellow junior James Farris, who started the championship-clinching game last June, to provide a steady 1-2 punch in the pitching rotation that will stack up against any team in the conference.
In fact, pitching may prove to be the strong suit of this club, at least early on. Despite losing Heyer, an All-American, every other key contributor from last season's staff returns, and several freshmen have impressed in preseason practices. Pitching depth may be a luxury that the Wildcats lacked a season ago, which may mean the weekend starters will not be asked to log as many innings as they did in 2012, evidenced by 16 complete games.
"I think our biggest strength is having older pitchers," Lopez said. "We have guys back who have been through the realm of college baseball and Pac-12 baseball. Farris, Wade, (Mathew) Troupe, (Tyler) Crawford - they all pitched in Omaha. And then you have four-year guys like (Stephen) Manthei, (Tyler) Hale, (Nick) Cunningham who have pitched a lot in their careers and are throwing well now. That is seven guys right there that have been around for a long time. Even though a couple may have been freshman, there is a lot of experience in those sophomore arms. And I think we have some freshmen ready to contribute, too."
At the same time, Arizona has some questions to answer offensively. The Wildcats are replacing their leadoff man and the No. 3-6 hitters in the batting order. That is no small task. But if there is one thing Lopez's teams have done well in recent seasons, it is to play unselfishly and limit strikeouts. Putting the ball in play and executing situations will be at a premium, notably early in the season as the lineup takes shape.
"Last year's lineup was pretty special," Lopez said. "This year we are going to have some guys in new situations. Instead of certain guys being asked to bunt, they are now going to be asked to deliver base hits after we have put runners in scoring position ahead of them. But we have some talented players and if they stick to our approach - put the ball in play, hit the ball low and hard - then we will be able to put the pressure on the defense."
Ultimately, Lopez has one goal for his club: play good baseball. That was the rally cry for the team in its run through Omaha last season and it will remain the chief focus as long as Lopez is wearing his No. 7 jersey in the Wildcats' dugout. It is a general concept, but it encompasses the key fundamentals of the game ranging from executing situations on offense, throwing strikes on the mound and playing sound defense. The 30-year coaching veteran knows if his team does "play good baseball" throughout the season it will be back in the postseason for the ninth time in 11 seasons with another chance to get to Omaha.
And once you get to Omaha, anything can happen. The Wildcats know that as well as anyone.
Replacing All-American Kurt Heyer, the national leader in wins last season, will not be easy. A right-hander, Heyer was a workhorse that earned the Friday night role as a true freshman and was the team's ace for three seasons. Now the Wildcats will hand the ball to junior Konner Wade who, despite an inconsistent first half of his sophomore season, was arguably one of the nation's most dominant pitchers by season's end when he collected a pair of complete game victories and earned a spot on the College World Series All-Tournament Team last June.
Wade finished with an 11-3 record, a 3.96 earned run average, 105 strikeouts and six complete games in 136.1 total innings. By season's end, his early-season control issues were sorted out and he even had a stretch of 31 consecutive innings without a walk allowed during postseason play. This season, he has improved his secondary pitches to complement a nasty sinking fastball that runs down and in and to righties and away from lefties.
Moving into the Saturday spot in the rotation will be right-hander James Farris, a steady Sunday starter a year ago that earned the job for opening weekend and never gave it up. Farris posted a 7-3 record, a .397 earned run average and walked just 20 batters all season in 106.2 innings. He tossed a trio of complete games and had strong performances in each of his two postseason starts, including in the national title game against South Carolina when he allowed just one run in 7.2 innings.
The Sunday slot is not as clear-cut as the first two weekend roles, but veteran Stephen Manthei asked coaches in the fall if he could compete for a starting job. A primary setup-man with a 6-4 record out of the bullpen last season, Manthei is a likely candidate to earn his first career weekend start in the season-opening series.
Whether Manthei takes the Sunday job and runs with it will determine the roles of the other key arms. Sophomore Tyler Crawford had a pair of spot-starts in mid-week games last year, and was the team's top left-handed option out of the bullpen. Seniors Tyler Hale and Nick Cunningham, both right-handers, have pitched well despite inconsistent junior campaigns, as has left-hander Augey Bill, who pitched in five games last season.
A group of talented freshmen are eager to compete for various roles, too. Lefty Cody Moffett and righties Tyger Talley and Nathan Bannister have had strong showings in preseason intrasquads and give the Wildcats added depth.
One more lock in the pitching staff is the role of Mathew Troupe, who enters his sophomore season as the undisputed closer. A year ago, Troupe snatched the closer job early in the season and pitched well, including on the road in a hostile environment at Oregon State where he notched a pair of saves. He struggled in the second half of the regular season, but regained his form in the postseason and earned two victories out of the bullpen at the College World Series.
When Troupe commands his breaking ball, he is as difficult to hit as any reliever in the conference.
In the end, the Wildcats have more pitching depth than they have had in several seasons. There are also more left-handed options which could prove beneficial in late-inning matchup situations. They key for the staff, from the starters to the relievers, will be to command the strike zone and avoid walks. That is something 2012 National Pitching Coach of the Year Shaun Cole and Lopez continue to preach and is something the Wildcats have done very well the last couple of seasons. If Arizona can continue the trend, it will have another strong season on the mound.
A freshman All-American in 2012, Riley Moore returns for his second season as a full-time starter. A season ago, Moore hit .301 with 10 doubles, two triples and a home run to go with 40 runs scored and 38 runs batted in as he played in 64 of the team's 65 games, including 62 starts. He spent much of the season as a switch-hitter, but in May hit solely from his more natural left side, which he will continue to do on a permanent basis again as a sophomore.
One thing coaches hope to do this season is give Moore some more rest. He caught 561 of the team's 586 innings pitched a season ago, an arduous task for any player let alone a freshman. The Wildcats like the defensive talents of freshman David Real, a sturdy backstop that could spell Moore when called upon. Another top option is sophomore Jordan Berger, who started a pair of games last season. Berger is a left-handed hitter that could give the Wildcats more offensive punch in the backup catcher role when necessary.
Simply put, Arizona is not going to replace Pac-12 Player and Defensive Player of the Year Alex Mejia. The leadership and intangibles the All-American brought to the team are irreplaceable. It will also be difficult to fill the void left by Seth Mejias-Brean, an All-Pac-12 third baseman. Mejia and Mejias-Brean formed the best defensive left side of an infield in the nation last year.
However, the Wildcats have some very capable replacements. Freshman Kevin Newman is penciled in as the starting shortstop and looks to follow in the footsteps of Mejia and Bryce Ortega who each started at the position as true freshmen. Junior Brandon Dixon will take over at the hot-corner after playing in 62 games at first base last season. Dixon is an athletic player that has improved his stroke at the plate and is primed for a breakout season.
Sophomore Trent Gilbert returns as the starter at second base after starting 64 games and scoring 34 runs with 42 runs batted in last season. Gilbert will again be backed up by David Lopez, who like Gilbert hits from the left side. At first base, freshman Ryan Koziol and junior college transfer Sam Parris are in a stiff competition and offer the Wildcats left and right-handed hitting options.
Coaches are also excited about the prospects of a pair of freshmen, Cody Ramer and Scott Kingery. Ramer can back up at second or third base, and is a candidate to start in the outfield and potentially hit leadoff in the batting order. Kingery missed some time in January, but was arguably one of the team's top players in the fall. A speedy player, Kingery figures to be the team's backup shortstop behind Newman and also a top contender for a starting spot in the outfield.
Another highly-touted freshman, Jackson Willeford, suffered an arm injury in the preseason which will limit his contributions in the early part of the season. Willeford is a talented offensive player that when healthy could contend for the designated hitter position, as well as backing up at second or third base.
Arizona's outfield will also have a different look to it this season. Preseason All-American Johnny Fieldwill slide over from left field to assume the starting centerfielder job. The Pac-12 batting champion who finished with a .370 batting average and a .476 on base percentage, Field likely will move down to the No. 3 spot in the batting order, going from a table-setter in the No. 2 slot to a run-producer.
Who occupies the corner positions to either side of Field remains up for grabs. Joseph Maggi, a natural outfielder who was the club's starting first baseman the second half of last season, will likely claim right or left field. A .326 hitter last season, Maggi is a feisty player that hits from the left side and gives the lineup some flexibility to both where he plays and where he can hit, either near the top or bottom of the batting order.
Sophomore Tyler Parmenter shifts from the infield to the outfield this season, giving the Wildcats a strong throwing arm and a right-handed bat. Freshmen Scott Kingery, Cody Ramer and Zach Gibbons are also talented, athletic freshmen competing for the corner spots. Each adds an element of speed to not only the defense, but also the offensive lineup. Kingery and Ramer are also candidates for backup roles in the infield. The odd men out in the defensive lineup will become prime candidates to start at designated hitter.