Arizona baseball embraces tough mentality
Ask anyone who’s played for head coach Andy Lopez for a tip and one of the first things they’ll tell you is that the two-time NCAA national champion coach teaches toughness.
Lopez has tried to teach the Wildcats (15-11, 0-6 Pac-12) to perform with grit and a serious attitude all year. With the Wildcats sitting in the cellar of the conference, and an upcoming home series with Utah (12-10, 2-4) starting Thursday at 6 p.m., Lopez is looking for more toughness.
“You’re supposed to play good from the first pitch,” Lopez said about the Wildcats’ recent road sweep at Oregon. “You can’t wait for the last three outs to start swinging it.”
In the final game of the series in Eugene, Ore., the Wildcats’ bats finally came alive in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs against the Ducks’ first-team All-American closer, Jimmie Sherfy.
Arizona went on to score three runs in the inning but still fell 7-6, securing the six-game losing skid. It was by far the most successful inning the Wildcats’ offense has had since conference play began, but Lopez wasn’t going to be enamored with one good inning.
“I’ve been saying this for three or four weeks: We need to get tougher, we need to get tougher,” Lopez said. “I know it’s wearing them out, but now the reality is here. We got to get tough; we’re in the [Pac-12].”
Lopez will be the last person to make excuses, but Arizona had the unlucky draw of playing then-No. 4 Oregon State and then-No. 12 Oregon to open the conference schedule. The Wildcats finally get a little breather this weekend as they host middle-of-the-pack Utah in the friendly confines of Hi Corbett Field.
The weekend’s series with Utah, which was pushed up a day due to Easter Sunday, will give the Wildcats a more manageable opponent to regain their form and play tough throughout the game.
But if the Wildcats take the Utes lightly, it will most definitely come back to burn them.
Utah is fresh off taking two out of three from Stanford the past weekend and beating BYU in 10 innings, and Utah freshman third baseman Dallas Carroll was just named Pac-12 Player of the Week, going 7-17 with five RBIs. On the season, Carroll leads the team with 23 hits while posting a .284 batting average.
Carrol doesn’t make the offense, though, as Utah’s team batting average is the worst in the conference (.244).
Lopez said he was happy with how his pitchers performed last Friday and Saturday, and if that carries over into the Utah series, Arizona could finally see some Pac-12 success.
The same can’t be said about Arizona’s Sunday starter, freshman Cody Moffett (2-2, 3.96 ERA), and most of his bullpen’s performance.
Moffett was hit hard early in the game against Oregon and was eventually pulled by Lopez before recording an out in the third inning. Lopez said this week in practice that Moffett could still be the Sunday starter, but for now that has yet to be decided.
Even with one of the worst starts to the conference schedule under Lopez’s reign at the UA, third baseman Brandon Dixon said he isn’t concerned, as there are still 24 conference games remaining.
“We still have a long ways to go,” Dixon said. “There’s no need to panic, especially when you have the talent we have.”
Usual Friday night ace Konner Wade (2-2, 4.14 ERA) will take the mound for the Wildcats on Thursday as they look to get back on track.
Lopez said he hopes the importance of playing with a tough mentality starts to sink in for his Arizona team, adding that they can’t expect to be thrown a bone for being the defending national champions.
“The reality of this conference is no one gives you anything,” Lopez said. “You got to earn it.”