Wildcats stealing spotlight at World Series
With three national titles and 16 World Series appearances to their credit, the Arizona Wildcats can hardly call themselves the Cinderella story of this year's College World Series in Omaha.
That's the domain of Stony Brook and Kent State.
But the Wildcats are a hot item in their own right -- darn near as hot as yesterday's temperatures in Tucson. Coach Andy Lopez's crew has all but stolen the spotlight from not only the Cinderellas, but top-ranked Florida and No. 2 UCLA as well.
They've done it by playing their best baseball of the season when it matters most -- leaving themselves three victories away from title No. 4.
The Cinderella thing only goes so far. At this point in the tournament, it's about winning. And the Wildcats (48-17) are a perfect 7-0 in postseason play heading into Thursday's game against Florida State (50-16).
“We’re playing well,’’ Lopez said in a telephone interview. “They understand where they are at.’’
A win Thursday advances Arizona to the best-of-three finals. A loss sets up a rematch on Friday.
“When you’re playing ball and you get to this stage – and you’re one of six teams out of 300 to start the season, a team that gets hot and stays hot (can win it),’’ Lopez said. “But, in athletics, it isn’t as easy as it looks.’’
Lopez knows the formula from 20 years ago, when he coached under-the-radar Pepperdine to a title.
The similarities of this year to then? Both teams came into the Series focused and playing well, Lopez said.
Arizona's offense has been on a tear for six weeks now; its starting pitching superb; the chemistry has been great all year.
And the Wildcats have been adept at the “intangibles” -- catching the right breaks and opportunities at the right time.
Throw in an affable coach, surrounded by a supportive family, including two sons in uniform, and it add up to lots TV airtime.
It gets only better with the story of shortstop Alex Mejia, the Pac-12 Player of the Year. When it was revealed that Mejia’s parents drove 22 hours from Sylmar, Calif., to Omaha to watch their son play after getting donations from their family, the “wow’’ meter turned on. They were there to witness two great games by the Wildcats before heading back home to pull for the Cats from afar.
With stories like that, what’s NOT to love about the Wildcats?
How did it happen? It started with a sweep of No. 2 Stanford back in the final week of March. Since then, they've gone 25-7 with a combination of elbow grease, grit, guts and teamwork. And all the pieces fit, whether they are polished or not. Lopez describes the Wildcats as a bunch of lunch-pail guys who find a way to get the job done.
“I don’t think there is a lot of flash to them,’’ Lopez said.
They're not without flaws. The bullpen has been inconsistent, and outside of No. 1 starter Kurt Heyer, the pitching in general hasn't been jaw dropping. But then sophomore Konner Wade goes out and shuts out second-ranked UCLA on five singles.
“On paper you wouldn’t say, ‘Holy smokes’ that’s the best team in the nation out there,' ’’ Lopez said. “I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t be that foolish. But it isn’t always the best team that wins, but the team that is playing the best.’’
It doesn’t hurt to add a little humility, too. On Tuesday, the team spent part of an off day visiting a local children’s hospital.
“I told them to go in there and not just blow it off, but go in and make a connection with the kids,’’ Lopez said. “Make the day a little bit better for them. Life is hard, but for the time we are there, make sure while we are there make things good for them.’’
And the feel-good story continues.