UA Baseball: The championship way
By Eric W. Kay
In the annals of college baseball history, one would be hard pressed to find a team that ever had a more dominant run than the 2012 Arizona Wildcats.
The Wildcats went 10-0 in the NCAA tournament, including 5-0 at the College World Series – where they never trailed – and the UA’s pitchers limited their opponents to nine combined runs, quashing any hopes their challengers held for a big rally, when the Cats’ bats hit one of their seldom dry spells.
Yet though the Series was ultimately won with outstanding pitching, the games weren’t all narrow victories, either.
Arizona outscored Florida State, UCLA, and South Carolina 27-9 over their five CWS outings, defeating each team with relative ease, and the biggest drama for the UA arguably appeared in its first game of the Series, a crucial scale-tipper that would keep the Wildcats on the right path for the remainder of the tournament.
The Cats couldn’t hold onto semi-comfortable leads of 2-0 or 3-1 in their first meeting with FSU, and the Seminoles relentlessly tested the resolve of the Arizona staff, forcing head coach Andy Lopez to utilize his bullpen more than he had in any other game of the entire post season. When Lopez pulled junior ace Kurt Heyer with two outs in the eighth inning, he leaned on relievers Tyler Crawford and Mat Troupe the rest of the way, and they held serve long enough for the Cats to drive across a run in the top of the 12th, before Troupe dispatched the ’Noles in the bottom half, stranding FSU’s Seth Miller just 90 feet from home plate.
That short distance was a difficult length of dirt for South Carolina’s Gamecocks to cross in the best-of-three championship series, as they mustered a lone run in each of their games, while the Wildcats clinched their fourth-ever World Series and first in 26 seasons on Monday night in Omaha.
The two-time defending champion ’Cocks stranded runners at third twice in the Series’ final two innings on Monday, the first occurrence coming when Troupe struck out Joey Pankake looking on a 3-2 count with the game tied. The freshman made things even more interesting in the bottom of the ninth, when, despite holding a three-run lead following an almost-inevitable Arizona rally, he loaded the bases on a single and two walks, recording only one out in the process.
After a Tanner English line out to second base – which Trent Gilbert nearly turned into a double play, as he dove for the bag with LB Dantzler retreating – Troupe induced a fly ball to right field off the bat of Grayson Greiner. Series Most Outstanding Player Robert Refsnyder caught it easily, igniting a furious Red and Blue celebration at the pitchers mound.
The ducks on the pond were held at bay, left to watch on emptily in defeat, as a new team was crowned national champion.
Arizona became just the third team in history to run the table in college baseball’s Big Dance, and first since the 2000 Tigers of Louisiana State went 9-0 on their path to the game’s pantheon. But that LSU team, comprised of future Major League Baseball regulars Ryan Theriot, Mike Fontenot, and Brad Hawpe, made their living by pulverizing the ball, forcing their opponents into submission to the tune of almost nine runs a game, while still allowing over four runs per outing.
The Wildcats certainly had their moments at the plate, stringing together multiple hits over a handful of big innings, but what made their flawless five-game CWS journey possible was the remarkable performance of their pitching staff, which surrendered a stunningly-low 1.13 ERA on the hill during season’s most critical games.
That achievement alone is worth celebrating, and was in the spotlight when UA athletic director Greg Byrne threw the team a welcome home party the day after their Series victory.
The Cats returned to a frenzied crowd of over 5,000 blissful fans at the McKale Center on Tuesday, and guests included the likes of the legendary former UA baseball coach Jerry Kindall, football head coach Rich Rodriguez, and Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, who humorously posed to Lopez how he managed to assemble the Hall of Fame Atlanta Braves pitching trio of John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux on his 2012 staff.
The way starters Konner Wade, James Farris and Heyer delivered down the stretch, however, perhaps the mayor wasn’t kidding after all.
Rothschild went on to announce that one of the streets surrounding Arizona Baseball’s new home at Hi Corbett Field would be ceremoniously renamed ‘Championship Way,’ a lasting reminder of how captivated and disarmed the Old Pueblo was by one of its university’s greatest athletic successes in the past quarter century.
The magic of the Wildcats’ resurgent ride may have not had the same impact on the community as the indelible Final Four runs of the basketball team, but that in no way discounts their extraordinary achievement. Aside from hoops glory (and a still-unattainable trip to the Rose Bowl by the football team), this triumph is as good as it gets for Wildcat Nation. And because of the setbacks the aforementioned programs suffered over the past year, Arizona’s success on the diamond served to infuse the spirits of a population that’s been longing for a reason to be happy again.
To that end, Tucson owes Lopez and his program a debt of gratitude.
Next year may well bring another round of delight from the Wildcats, who are stocked with experienced and proven players who will be led once again by Lopez, who was honored as National Coach of the Year for a third time this week. And even with the loss of graduating players and stars who will opt to jump to the professional ranks, a touted incoming freshman class will bolster the UA roster and afford them the opportunity to return to Omaha next June.
That journey will start next spring in Tucson’s Grand Old Ballpark, and based on the passion evoked by this year’s magnificent trek to the top, Hi Corbett will enjoy an 86th year filled with a Cardinal and Navy-wearing fan base, one that was reborn with a park and a program that have unified in an undeniably perfect marriage.
Enjoy the honeymoon, Tucson, and look forward to many more magical years over on Championship Way.
Eric W. Kay is regular contributor to Wildcat Sports Report. Follow the Cats year-round right here on WildcatSportsReport.com.