Arizona Wildcats coach Andy Lopez has said he knew. He knew in the preseason that this team, his 11th at UA, could be special.
Arizona would have to stay healthy, of course. It would have to get into the right regional — meaning it would be nice to play at home in the postseason. The Cats would have to catch some breaks, do the right things at the right time like all championship teams must … but these guys had a chance.
And when it was all over, when the Wildcats had finished with a 10-0 record in the postseason, after they had never trailed at the College World Series, after the players doused Lopez with ice water during his ESPN interview, after a long on-field hug with his wife, Lopez found the perfect words to describe why he had that special feeling more than five months ago.
“When your best players are your best human beings, it’s going to be a good year,” Lopez said after Arizona beat South Carolina 4-1 in Omaha on Monday night.
“It’s been a great year for us because my best players are my best human beings. … And that’s a real deadly combination when you suit up as a team.”
Arizona and Lopez has been building for this moment for three years since the 2009 team departed, the squad that the coach often refers to as being filled with too many knuckleheads. It happens.
But Lopez replaced knuckleheads with bedrock — the current junior class on which this team is built. Shortstop Alex Mejia. Pitcher Kurt Heyer. Outfielder Robert Refsnyder. Outfielder Joey Rickard. Third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean.
“As soon as I stepped on campus, we started practicing, you could tell how frustrated he was with the last team,” Refsnyder said in the postgame press conference.
“And you could tell that he was fed up with baseball and trying to teach young people simple things — to go to class and study hall and take care of your business off the field. You could see the frustration. But Lopez gave us, gave myself and the junior class, the tools to how to be successful.”
They used those tools to hammer out one of the most magical months of Arizona baseball ever.
It started with Johnny Field’s walk-off single to beat Arizona State 8-7 in the regular-season finale, giving the Cats a share of their first conference title in 20 years. Arizona didn’t lose after that.
Amazingly, the Wildcats needed only five pitchers to get through the next 10 games, a remarkable stretch in which a starter delivered at least 7 1/3 innings each time. Sophomore James Farris pitched a marvelous 7 2/3 innings against South Carolina on Monday, allowing two hits and one run, vindicating Lopez’s decision to start him instead of Heyer on short rest.
Farris out-dueled the Gamecocks’ Michael Roth, whose work in the College World Series, including helping win national titles in 2010 and 2011, has made him an Omaha legend. Farris hadn’t pitched in a game since June 3.
“About three, four days ago in practice I pointed him out to the club, and I said it’s never about you,” Lopez said. “We talk about that a lot. It’s always about the program. It’s never about you as an individual. …
“And two or three days ago I pointed out Farris. I brought him in front of the group. And I said this guy’s been passed over twice in postseason and he’s ready to pitch and he’ll get a chance to pitch here before everything’s said and done. And he was pretty marvelous tonight.”
Arizona’s hitting, top to bottom, was consistent and clutch. Arizona hit .353 in the postseason, with every member of the lineup — which never changed — hitting over .300. No. 9 hitter Trent Gilbert drove in three runs Monday, including two on a ninth-inning single. The other RBI belonged to first baseman Brandon Dixon, a defensive replacement who delivered the go-ahead run in the ninth on a double.
“It was amazing to get that opportunity to help the team out,” Dixon said.
And then the defense. In the first game of the championship series, Refnsyder threw out a runner at third from right field. In the second game, Mejias-Brean made two stunning plays, including getting a force out at second on an attempted sac bunt in the eighth in a time game. Mejia seems to play with a Hoover, not a glove.
Starting pitching, clutch hitting and defense. That’s a pretty good team effort. What else is there?
Well, there’s that chemistry that the Cats had. Lopez said this team has “been a joy.” He frequently repeated in the past few weeks that he liked suiting up with these guys. Lopez repeats a lot of things, but that’s a two-way street. His players also were willing listeners.
One win at a time. Have a plan. Be excited to execute that plan. It’s not about you, it’s about the team.
On Monday, it was about a national championship — the fourth for the Arizona baseball program and the second for Lopez, his first coming with Pepperdine in 1992.
He has the facility he always wanted in Hi Corbett Field, the fan support he previously found lacking in Tucson, the second championship he always knew he was good enough to win. He has been frustrated at times at Arizona, tempted to leave, but his persistence has paid off.
At 58, might he just be getting truly started in Tucson?
“Coach Lopez means the world to us,” Refsnyder said. “We’re just so happy we brought joy back to his life in coaching.”