CATS’ RUN EASES JUNE SWOON
By Eric W. Kay
If there was one intriguing concern heading into Arizona’s super regional matchup with St. John’s last weekend in Tucson, it was that the Wildcats had yet to be tested in a close game in the 2012 postseason.
The UA coasted to blowout victories over Missouri and Louisville in a three-game romp the weekend prior, while the Red Storm battled through close contests twice, upsetting the North Carolina Tarheels, their regional hosts.
If the Cats were going to take two of three from St. John’s and advance to their first College World Series since 2004, they would likely have to win at least one nail-biter, yet no one knew how they would perform when the game hung in the balance in the waning innings, when the heat of late-game pressure was on.
And boy, was the heat ever on.
Friday and Saturday afternoons at Hi Corbett Field were about as blistering as one can experience at The Old Ballgame, with temperatures touching the low 100s, and a stagnant breeze that left most of the 2,500 in attendance begging for mercy from the smoldering June air.
Just as every drop from the gallons of UA-provided sunscreen was needed, equally necessary were all the game-saving plays the Wildcats executed over the two days, including a handful of double plays turned, timely, aggressive base running, and a play at the plate in the 10th inning Friday that likely kept the Cats from having their collective goose cooked prematurely.
The UA hung around all afternoon in Game 1, despite starting pitcher Kurt Heyer’s rough fourth inning that gave the Johnnies a 5-0 lead. Arizona answered slowly, scoring single runs in the bottom of the fourth and fifth, while Heyer buckled down and shut out SJU through the remainder of regulation play.
The Cats broke loose in the bottom of the sixth, with Trent Gilbert hitting an RBI triple ahead of Joey Rickard’s run-scoring single. Arizona then got a gift from St. John’s center fielder Kyle Richardson, who dropped a fly ball on what should have been the inning’s final out, allowing Rickard to score the tying run.
The game remained tied through the ninth, and Arizona head coach Andy Lopez opted to leave Heyer in for extras, despite the All-Pac-12 righty having already thrown 122 pitches.
He lasted only seven more in the top of the 10th, surrendering the lead following a single, a passed ball, and a double by SJU third baseman Sean O’Hare that put the Red Storm up 6-5. Lopez then summoned freshman Matthew Troupe from the bullpen; his first pitch was laced into left field by designated hitter Zach Lauricella.
But the ensuing play turned the entire weekend around.
As the ball bounced toward sophomore Johnny Field, O’Hare took a wide turn around third base, his eyes fixed on home plate. Field caught the ball cleanly, then launched a missile to catcher Riley Moore, who dropped the tag on a sliding O’Hare just in time. The Cats still trailed by a run, but the magnificent play limited further damage and sent the Red and Blue faithful into a roar, as they too seemed to sense the significance of the moment.
Troupe induced a pop fly two pitches later, and the UA returned to its dugout needing its electric offense to push across just a single run to stay alive.
Arizona sprung into action immediately, feeding off the momentum generated by Field’s rocket throw to nip the Johnnies at the dish.
Robert Refsnyder drew a gritty 3-and-2 walk to lead off the bottom of the 10th, and Seth Mejias-Brean sacrificed him to second with a bunt. St. John’s coach Ed Blankmeyer brought in southpaw Kevin Kilpatrick to face Bobby Brown, Arizona’s power-hitting left-handed DH. Brown lined a single into center field, scoring Refsnyder and reigniting the UA crowd, which had labored through bouts of lethargy all afternoon, as the relentless sun burned on without remorse.
With the St. John’s outfield playing shallow, UA backup first baseman Brandon Dixon slapped his own line drive into center field, while Brown put his head down and motored for third base. He slid in ahead of the tag, forcing the Johnnies’ hand in doing so. Following an intentional walk to Moore and another SJU pitching change, Gilbert ripped a liner to right field, giving the UA a thrilling come-from-behind win in the series’ utterly crucial first game.
Game 2 was never a rout, but the UA led comfortably most of the way, receiving another stellar outing from sophomore hurler Konner Wade, who went the distance for the Cats, allowing just six St. John’s hits. Arizona recorded 12 knocks of their own, and their 7-4 victory made them the first team to qualify for the 2012 World Series.
Though the game had a few tenuous moments, the Wildcats appeared mostly on cruise control on Saturday, knowing they had to win just one of two home games to advance, and having proved to themselves just a day earlier that their offense could overcome a large deficit (and another late one, to boot).
But Field’s defensive play in the 10th inning on Friday truly saved the weekend for Arizona, at a time when the Red Storm had a chance to establish a much more morale-crushing lead. Had he not gunned down O’Hare at the plate, Field and his teammates might still be in Tucson this week, wondering “what if?” instead of preparing themselves for their program’s biggest games in eight years.
The first of those games will take place Friday at 6 p.m. Tucson time, when Arizona will face Florida State in the eight-team, double-elimination World Series. The Seminoles did their own UA impression over the weekend, embarrassing Stanford 17-1 and 18-7 in the rain-soaked Tallahassee, Fla. super regional.
Their road to the Series has been similar to Arizona’s; both are undefeated in tournament play, and both have mixed in some monster offensive performances with a couple close calls. However, FSU has relied far less on its starting pitching, and aside from freshman phenom Brandon Leibrandt – who has tossed 14 innings in two starts – the ‘Noles have employed their bullpen for 16 and two-thirds innings during their five victories, opposed to Arizona’s staggeringly low two and one-third innings over the same stretch.
What does that mean in terms of strategy? It’s anybody’s guess.
On one hand, Lopez is loaded with a fresh pen, which affords him the comfort of having a short leash with Heyer, (or in subsequent games with Wade or sophomore James Farris), should FSU and/or Arizona’s other opponents continue swinging hot bats, putting Arizona’s starters in early trouble.
On the other, Seminoles coach Mike Martin can be patient with his starters, and his tandem of Leibrandt and fellow Freshman All-American Mike Compton may get more time to work out of trouble, without their coach worrying about taxing his young stars, which could potentially be an issue for Arizona.
Regardless of the result, however, 2012 has been a resounding success for the Wildcats, the University of Arizona, and the Tucson community, and the future looks incredibly promising for the program as it moves ahead in its new digs, with a renewed attitude of excellence, and a fan base that has already shown it’s enamored with UA baseball, with over 105,000 faithful passing through the Hi Corbett turnstiles this season.
Incredibly enough, the Wildcats’ first opponent, which boasts 21 World Series appearances, has never claimed the NCAA championship trophy. The Wildcats, who are making their 16th CWS appearance, are facing what has become a seldom opportunity over the past 20 years – a shot to bring home Arizona’s fourth national championship, and first since 1986.
They’ve made it this far having done a lot of things very well, and there’s no reason to believe the Cats will fade in the warm, humid Nebraska air. Coach Lopez won himself a championship at Pepperdine 20 years ago; here’s believing he’s pulled together the perfect group to make another magical run.
Forget the June Swoon, the Bat Cats have knocked it way out of the park.
Eric W. Kay is a regular contributor to Wildcat Sports Report. Follow the Cats this weekend at the College World Series on WildcatSportsReport.com.