ASU-Arizona baseball rivalry reaches new level

With UA coming off title, ASU headed back to tourney and new stadiums in mix, rivalry reaching new level.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Andy Lopez could have hedged to satisfy the Arizona fan base. When you’re discussing your most heated rival, it’s unwise to admit weakness.

But then, “the facts are the facts,” Lopez said.

“When I got here, we had been to one regional in the past eight years and Arizona State had been great forever. That’s not much of a rivalry.”

It’s safe to say Lopez has changed all that. 

In his 12 seasons at Arizona, Lopez has led the Wildcats to their first College World Series appearance since 1986, their first regional title since 1986, their first-ever super regional title and their first 40-win seasons since 1989.

In 2012, Lopez took the final step, guiding the Cats to a share of the Pac-12 title, a 10-0 postseason and the program’s first national championship in 26 years.

All while Arizona State watched. 

The Sun Devils were ruled ineligible for the NCAA tournament after the NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee upheld penalties imposed the previous year.

“Growing up an ASU fan, I always felt like we’d been in charge of U of A,” ASU junior Kasey Coffman said. "Then, last year, they won the national title and we can’t go to the postseason. That kind of just shook up everything. That re-ignited the flame. 

“In a sense, I’m happy that a Pac-12 team won the title, but watching U of A win and (to) not be able to do anything about it? That was tough.”

ASU (33-15-1, 14-10, Pac-12) can do something about it this weekend by driving the final nail in what has been a disappointing encore to Arizona’s title run. The two teams square off in a three-game series Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Packard Stadium. 

ASU still has hopes of securing a spot as a regional host in the upcoming postseason. Arizona (29-20, 10-14) is hoping to foil its rival’s plans, as it did last year in an epic three-game series in Tucson in which the Cats won two of the three games in walk-off fashion.

“That was one of the best U of A-ASU series I can remember,” Sun Devils coach Tim Esmay said. 

Esmay has always felt the heat of the ASU-UA rivalry, given his deep Sun Devil roots as both a player and an assistant coach under Jim Brock. While he believes the rivalry has always been fierce, he admits that UA’s title and recent success have fueled the competitive fires.

“With what they did last year and how they did it, our guys were like, 'Hey, that’s something we want in our clubhouse,’” he said.

It helps that both rosters are littered with Arizona-bred players who often played each other in high school, or even played on the same team, as Coffman did with UA sophomore Joseph Maggi. Fourteen players on ASU’s roster attended Arizona high schools; 13 on Arizona’s roster did likewise.

“If you grow up in L.A., you don’t hear about the ASU-UA rivalry much, so it doesn’t mean as much to you when you get here. But when you grow up in the Valley, you hear about it all the time -- every time one of our teams plays one of theirs -- so that definitely adds something to it,” Esmay said. “We don’t have to stand around here and tell guys what this means. Sometimes, they tell us what it means.”

In a suddenly rugged Pac-12, the two schools are not alone in the quest for regional and national dominance. Oregon State and Oregon currently hold down the top two spots in the conference standings, while UCLA is third. 

It’s no coincidence that the two Oregon schools are also leading the way in the facilities they offer recruits. To that end, both Esmay and Lopez believe the moves of their respective programs into new venues will help on the recruiting trail and in the practical, daily matters of managing a ballclub, including easily accessed training and weight facilities.

Hi Corbett Field became the new home of Arizona baseball in 2012 after previously serving as the spring training home of the Colorado Rockies. ASU will move from aging Packard to Phoenix Municipal Stadium starting in the 2015 season. The move was made possible when the Cubs secured a new spring training home in Mesa (one they didn’t want to share with ASU) and the Athletics moved from Phoenix Municipal to the Cubs’ old home at Hohokam Stadium.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for us,” ASU athletic director Steve Patterson said. “The stadium has far better amenities, it’s right on the light-rail line, they just put in news seats, it’ll be an easy in and out with the parking lots and there are lots of great back-of-house facilities for the team.”

There is one more benefit that Coffman sees: beer sales. 

“That’s a big deal,” he said.

When told that the university had not yet decided whether beer would sold at games, Coffman’s eyes widened.

“Oh, man, they’ve got to,” he said. “They’ll make tons of money. And imagine how much more awesome that will make the atmosphere.”

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