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Arizona baseball: No ‘giraffe in center field’ but a near no-hitter in opener

Konner Wade

Konner Wade allowed only one hit in the season opener. 2012 photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Arizona baseball coach Andy Lopez had an intriguing choice for his first major in-game dilemma of the season.

The Wildcats’ starting pitcher, Konner Wade, was throwing a no-hitter through six innings Friday night, but he also was getting near his pitch limit as he went out for the seventh inning.

It’s a long season; there was no need for Lopez to push Wade too hard in what ended up being a 16-0 win over Coppin State at Hi Corbett Field. On the other hand, Lopez was willing to bend the pitch count if Wade kept pitching clean.

“I wouldn’t have let him go to 140 pitches,” Lopez said.

“In my mind, I was thinking, he can get this done with 105, 110 max. That’s not too bad. He’s a junior. He’s pitched a lot. I told my staff, ‘I’m not getting him.’”

The situation resolved itself before Lopez had to worry too much.

Wade gave up a ground single through the hole on the left side of the infield to start the seventh. Wade had thrown 88 pitches, two off his limit, and senior reliever Nick Cunningham had already been warming up. Lopez came out to the mound to talk to Wade.

“This is your last hitter,” Lopez told him. “So don’t argue.”

“I didn’t argue,” Wade said. “I was pretty tired.”

Wade struck out the next batter and then left to a nice ovation from the crowd of 5,145 at Hi Corbett. Cunningham finished with 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief.

And so, the 2013 season is underway.

Arizona celebrated its 2012 national championship before the game, with a pair of ex-Cats — pitcher Kurt Heyer and outfielder Joey Rickard — tossing ceremonial first pitches. The venerable stadium looks fresh with Arizona adding more cosmetic touches to the field, including turning the outfield walls of Hi Corbett from green to navy and putting new padding on them.

“The thing that please me the most was there was a lot of area to be distracted tonight, and rightly so,” Lopez said. “Short of a couple of elephants and a giraffe in the center field, it was all going on here. I thought the young guys did a good job with that.”

Breaking news: Johnny Field can still hit.

Field, a junior outfielder who led the Pac-12 with a .370 batting average last season, had a bases-loaded triple in the third inning and later added a pair of RBI singles.

Arizona scored seven runs in the third and five in the fourth. The innings took so long that Wade had to leave the bench to stay loose in the bullpen while the Cats batted.

“It was definitely tough,” Wade said.

“Those innings are kind of bittersweet. You’re happy they’re scoring those runs, but it just does a toll on your body when you have to sit for 20 minutes and then go out and throw again. I think I lost some juice after that.”

Wade struck out eight and walked one in his 6 1/3 innings.

While Arizona didn’t get its first no-hitter since Joe Magrane in 1984, the Cats did make the school record book, albeit in a far less sexy way, by getting hit by a pitch seven times. The old record was six. It’s not much of a surprise, really. Coppin State, which went 1-53 last season, hit a staggering 122 batters last season.

A couple of knee-jerk reactions from the opener:

–Arizona might have its leadoff hitter for the next three years. Freshman left fielder Scott Kingery has a smooth swing and went 2 for 3 with a stolen base, also reaching base three times on a hit by pitch. He missed most of January practice because of a mononucleosis, and Lopez hadn’t really been counting on him until next weekend.

“Man, he looked good tonight,” Lopez said. “He had a spectacular fall for us.”

–Cunningham can help this team. Cunningham’s career has been in reverse, with diminishing innings since his freshman season. He threw just four innings last year and didn’t appear in a game after March 21. He pitched well enough Friday night that Lopez quickly decided Cunningham will be his starter Tuesday when the Wildcats open a two-game set at Long Beach State. Cunningham was throwing in the low 90s, Lopez said.

With the opener out of the way, Arizona can get down to the grind of the season. It will all happen quickly now; the Cats play 19 more non-conference games through March 13.

“A good start,” Lopez said after Friday night’s game.

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