ARIZONA’S ARMS RACE TOWARD TITLE
By Eric W. Kay
Arizona’s College World Series rematch with Florida State on Thursday will pit the Wildcats’ veteran ace Kurt Heyer against the Seminoles’ young phenom, Brandon Leibrandt, who had a stingy – albeit brief – outing against the UA on Friday, allowing two earned runs over 4 1/3 innings on 84 pitches, in what ended up a thrilling 4-3 Arizona victory in 12 innings.
The win kicked off the Series in the best way possible for Arizona, keeping them in the winners bracket and setting up a matchup with Pac-12 conference rival UCLA on Sunday. The Wildcats rode the near-untouchable pitching of sophomore Konner Wade as they cruised to a 4-0 victory, supported by a five-hit, four-run fourth inning.
The Cats now have two chances to knock out the Seminoles, who dropped the Bruins 4-1 in Tuesday’s elimination game, as right-handed junior Scott Sitz struck out eight Bruin hitters while allowing just a single run in 6 2/3 innings.
UA head coach Andy Lopez has debated this week whether to start Heyer in place of sophomore James Farris, who hasn’t pitched in game action since Arizona’s regional-clinching romp over Louisville on June 3.
If he can keep Heyer on the bench Thursday, and the UA wins, he’d have his All-Pac-12 junior righty in his arsenal for the potential Game 1 of the best-of-three national championship series, which would start on Sunday against either Kent State, Arkansas, or two-time defending champ South Carolina.
However, should the Cats lose Thursday, forcing a do-or-die reboot with FSU on Saturday, his hand would be forced into using Heyer in that contest, rendering him all-but certainly unable to pitch in the championship series.
As of Wednesday, Lopez was leaning toward opting for Heyer, which seems like the best move, given the above.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the Wildcats don’t have other potential options as a compromise.
With the best scenario moving forward being to knock out the ’Noles on Thursday, Lopez could decide to keep a short leash on Heyer, utilizing a combination of his No. 1 starter along with Farris or Wade for three to four innings. This alternative could serve to keep the UA staff fresh, allowing his trio of starters to pitch again on Saturday – if necessary – or with a UA win on Thursday, allow them to recharge for the championship series with two days’ rest.
The choice will be much easier for Florida State coach Mike Martin, who will likely turn to Leibrandt to try and keep his team alive for at least a couple more days. If he does, he’ll surely lean on the freshman harder than he did on Friday, hoping to preserve his best arms for the weekend and beyond.
As with Arizona’s first two games of the World Series, much will also rely on the Wildcat bats. Should the Cats build a lead or keep the game within a run or two on Thursday, Lopez may opt to stick with Heyer, who’s had a near-unlimited pitch count in tournament play. Arizona’s offensive output has dropped gradually throughout the post season though, and they’ve managed just eight combined runs over their first two CWS games, a far cry from the 47 they posted in the regional and 14 they scored in their two-game super regional sweep.
If the UA bats break loose against the ’Noles, however, Lopez’s options on the mound would increase dramatically.
The heart of Arizona’s lineup – Alex Mejia, Robert Refsnyder, and Seth Mejias-Brean – have driven home half of the UA’s CWS runs thus far, but that number could be much higher, had the top of the order done a better job getting on base.
Joey Rickard and Johnny Field – the Wildcats’ first two hitters – have combined for just two hits in 16 at-bats, with just one base on balls between them. Their contributions will be critical the remainder of the way, as the aforementioned trio that follows all have the power to drive the ball deep and blow a game wide open. While Mejia and Refsnyder are batting a combined .316 for the Series, Mejias-Brean is just 1-9, and he will look to rebound and return to the form that has made him a .357 hitter in 2012.
In reality, there’s no real way to predict how the rest of the World Series will play out for Arizona. There are a multitude of possibilities Lopez must consider with regard to his pitching staff, and ultimately, game situations will dictate the strategies he’ll employ. Add to that the sudden, however short-lived slumps that have stricken a few key Wildcat hitters, and the final outcome of the UA season remains largely unknown.
And yet, the Cats find themselves in the final four of college baseball’s World Series, and the 2012 season should forever be remembered as a triumph.
Now it’s time for a little icing on the cake.
Eric W. Kay is a regular contributor to Wildcat Sports Report. Visit WildcatSportsReport.com year-round for the latest news on UA athletics.