Last April, the Cal baseball team arrived in Tucson to the news that its program, which was facing elimination by the university because of budget problems, has been reinstated, saved by a major fundraising effort.
That got a local reporter wondering about the (perceived) fragile state of the Arizona program.
“I will never forget it,” Wildcats coach Andy Lopez told TucsonCitizen.com last week.
“Cal showed up in our facility and they were being interviewed because of the news, and there was a local newscaster who asked me, “Are you worried that this might happen to you at Arizona?’
“That was last year.”
This is this year.
While Lopez will argue, with some passion, that his program was never anywhere close to being so down and out that it was in the same area code of the chopping block, there is no debate that the question was born out of a persistent lack of buzz about Arizona baseball, overshadowed in the past two decades by Mike Candrea’s eight-time national championship softball program.
But this spring (and now early summer) has belonged to the hardball.
Lopez and athletic director Greg Byrne combined forces to create the perfect June storm — an exciting move off campus to Hi Corbett Field; a talented, veteran team; a 138 percent increase in attendance; a chance to host postseason play for the first time in 20 years; a group of guys oozing with chemistry and getting hot at the right time.
Add it all up, and the Arizona Wildcats are going to be playing for their fourth national title, the last coming in 1986.
Arizona dusted Florida State on Thursday in Omaha, winning 10-3 to clinch a berth in the best-of-three championship series that begins Sunday. The Cats will play the winner of Friday’s elimination game between Arkansas and two-time defending national champion South Carolina.
UA has won nine consecutive games, eight of which have come in the postseason. Arizona has outscored its opponents 79-26 in the postseason.
As Florida State coach Mike Martin said in his postgame press conference, “They did not give us any room to breathe.”
Arizona used up plenty of oxygen running around the bases in the first inning, using four hits, two walks and three FSU errors to take a 6-0 lead. The Cats batted around again in the fourth, pushing the lead to 10-1 on the strength of home runs by Robert Refsynder and Bobby Brown.
Meanwhile, starting pitcher Kurt Heyer (13-2) motored along, lasting 7 1/3 innings. He has 13 consecutive starts — 13! — in which he has pitched at least 7 1/3. He’s 9-1 in those games.
Arizona is lined up to start sophomore Konner Wade in the first game of the championship series. Wade has thrown back-to-back complete-game victories over St. John’s and UCLA, walking none. Yeah, the Cats have The Look about them.
“I’m not sure we’re invincible,” Lopez said after Thursday’s game. “In fact, I’m quite confident we’re not invincible. We’re playing good baseball.”
That’s all he wants. That’s his simple, repetitive message to his players. Play good baseball. Play good baseball. Play good baseball.
Do that enough times, and a team might even become great.
Lopez has now taken an Arizona team further than he ever has in 11 seasons in Tucson. It’s no secret he has been up for other jobs over the years, probably could have taken a couple of them, as he grew skeptical that he had the tools — i.e., the facilities and support — to do his job to the fullest.
“I know my responsibility is to put a good product out there,” he said last week. “If I can be really, really crazy for one moment, I don’t think we’ve put a bad product out there.
“We’ve been to regionals a lot. And, then, on top of it, it wasn’t 0 and 2 and a barbeque. It was five regional championship games, tow super regionals, Omaha, big-leaguers.
“But I had to wonder, ‘Is it ever going to happen here? … Maybe those jobs that are being talked about are something I should think about.’”
At 58, Lopez is probably done thinking about that. He has his facilities. He has Tucson’s attention.
And he’s just two wins away from a national championship.
Yeah, it might be a good idea to keep Arizona baseball around for a while.