First 10 Arizona baseball games show optimism, need for work
Head baseball coach Andy Lopez coaches with a mindset similar to that of a cross-country runner.
He views the baseball season as a marathon, rather than a sprint.
The two-time national champion breaks up the 56-game season into increments of 10.
“It’s a good way to get the team focused on the task at hand and not worry about games weeks down the road,” Lopez said.
Arizona’s (8-2) 14-5 victory over Utah Valley on Wednesday afternoon was its 10th game of the season. The defending national champions entered the season with a top-25 ranking, but some doubts about another successful season after losing six starters from the 2012 roster.
Now, 10 games into the 2013 season, Lopez and the Wildcats are optimistic.
That being said, the team still needs a gut check.
“Offensively, we need to start having downhill strokes,” Lopez said. “We are swinging up and hitting it up too much and in a ball park like Hi Corbett that’s just not going to cut it. Usual homerun swings are routine fly balls.”
Through the first 10 games, Arizona has started an average of three freshmen a game. Shortstop Kevin Newman, first baseman Ryan Koziol and left fielder Scott Kingery lead the Wildcats with the most at-bats so far this season (99). The three have a combined batting average of .252 and 27 RBI.
Last season, the Wildcats only started two position freshman, second baseman Trent Gilbert and catcher Riley Moore, both of whom made strong contributions to Arizona’s title run.
“I don’t think they play as freshman,” junior Brandon Dixon said about this year’s freshman group. “We really try to keep it simple for them because in the end, it’s [the] same game that they played in high school.”
This week Lopez got good news when one of his prized 2012 high school recruits, 12th round draft pick Jackson Willeford, was cleared to hit after injuring his elbow earlier this year. The infielder has still not been cleared to throw.
In 2012, the Wildcats’ pitching rotation was driven by ace and eventual sixth-round draft pick junior Kurt Heyer, with sophomores Konner Wade and James Farris working the middle and back of the weekend rotation. The rotation took time to develop, but by the end of the season it helped Arizona finish the season with an 11-game winning streak and the fourth national championship in school history.
With Heyer gone, Wade and Farris have taken command of the Friday and Saturday spots in the rotation. And what Lopez called a “solid” performance last Sunday from his preseason favorite, Stephen Manthei, has solidified the Sunday starting job for now.
“If conference play were to start today, I’d be happy with our rotation and with [Mathew Troupe] coming out to close,” Lopez said.
Wade, Farris and Manthei have collected six starts through 10 games this season. Opposing batters are hitting .208 off the three weekend starters.
Lopez’s biggest concern so far has been the team’s toughness. He has said in the past that one of the keys to being a successful team is having guys who can be bulldogs, especially on the pitching staff.
“You got to have heart when you get out there, and believe in yourself,” Lopez said. “You can’t be afraid and hide. Definitely not when you’re a pitcher.”
At this point last season, the Wildcats had a similar 8-2 record, lineup and rotation. Johnny Field and the experienced players in the middle led the lineup, while the front of the pitching staff was solid, and the back was still being tweaked.
Although six starters from last year’s national championship team left to play professionally, they have been replaced.
And though it will be nearly impossible to triumph all of 2012, the season is still on track to be successful.
“There’s a lot we can do better,” Dixon said. “But we’re just starting to get guys used to their new roles and I think if we continue to work on those things than we can be pretty dangerous.”